In my first Route 66 trips, I noticed on dozens of businesses and billboards in eastern New Mexico the signs of a distinctive lettering by a sign painter.
The signs were notable because of their lettering — often a thick, squat, easily read style that I’d seen nowhere else. Some of the letters were shadowed — a sign of good craftsmanship.
Some of the signs belonged to long-defunct businesses, especially in the Tucumcari, N.M., region. Even though a gas station or restaurant had perished, the sign painter’s work had endured — even decades after the business had gone bust. I wasn’t even sure if the sign painter was still alive.
Thanks to a bit of asking around, I tracked him down. He not only is very much alive, but still in business. He is Rudolph Gonzales, whose one-man sign-painting business, Signs by Rudy, is based in Tucumcari. And signs are still done by hand, as they have been for over 50 years.
In a phone interview, Gonzales, now 75, said he began his career in the sign-painting trade in 1954, a few days before his 20th birthday. A native of tiny Roy, N.M., Gonzales says he’d always had a knack for drawing and painting, even putting letters on farm trucks for their owners.
He started on his lifetime trade when Jim Hall, owner of Ace Sign Co. of Tucumcari, hired him.
Gonzales says Hall painted the original “Fat Man” logo for the Club Cafe, a much-missed Route 66 restaurant in
Santa Rosa, N.M., that closed in the 1991. Gonzales painted later “Fat Man” signs for the Club Cafe in the 1970s, including one that’s displayed at the Rotue 66 Auto Museum in Santa Rosa. Gonzales also has one of his “Fat Man” logos gracing Joseph’s restaurant in Santa Rosa, the unofficial successor to Club Cafe.
Gonzales eventually started his own business in 1980.
Gonzales’ work can be seen as far west as Gallup, N.M., and as far east as Dallas (that one was a Stuckey’s billboard). His signs can be frequently seen in the western Texas Panhandle and the eastern half of New Mexico on the Route 66 corridor.
“I think I’m the lone survivor in hand-painting,” Gonzales said. “Now it’s all computers. Computers, under the right supervision, can do the job well. But you still have to be a good sign-painter to begin with.”
Gonzales is quick to cite Hall and Russell Kinter, whom he described as the “Michaelangelo of sign painters,” as influences.
But Gonzales said he developed his own style over time. He described his basic fonts seen on his signs as a “left-handed quick style.”
Being a southpaw is one of key reasons his lettering is easily identified — it’s hard for others to emulate.
“I’ve had a lot of people try to imitate that, but they weren’t successful,” he said. “I tried, but I didn’t find anyone with the ability. I had one employee who worked for me for 17 years, and he couldn’t do it.”
Gonzales, who has two daughters and three grandchildren, says he plans to keep sign-painting “as long as my health holds out.” He’s putting together a book of his work to preserve some of his work for posterity.
“Once it’s gone, I’m afraid it’s going to be lost forever,” he said.