Category Archives: Signs

Laurel Shopping Center/Cinema Sign Replaced

Technically, I haven’t lived in Laurel for about 15 years. But being just around the Beltway in Northern Virginia, I do enjoy coming back for frequent visits; and for photographs and research for Lost Laurel. Maintaining that close proximity to my old hometown is particularly important to me when things happen—like when buildings are torn down, or when malls are closing their doors.

While I enjoy a west coast vacation as much as the next guy, I was sad to learn that the old Laurel Shopping Center Cinema sign was quickly (and apparently without much advanced notice) dismantled last week while I was in Los Angeles. Had I known, I would’ve hopped onto said Beltway in a heartbeat to get as many photos of the process as possible. Fortunately, there were some like-minded readers who happened to be nearby, who did just that—a big thanks to those who posted them and tipped me off to the impending changes!

There were also a few surprises to be found as the old sign was pulled apart… but more on that in a moment. First, let’s take a look at a few photos I’ve found of the sign from the past decade or so—a decade which saw a rapid deterioration of one of the most prominent signs along the Route 1 corridor.

Photo: Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com (Flickr)

The above photo brings back vivid memories of dusk at Laurel Shopping Center, despite the unusual selection of films. These are the same neon hues that I recall when The Breakfast Club was highlighting the marquee in 1985. But by March 2010—and after at least one period of closure—the Cinema had reopened with an apparent emphasis on Bollywood films.

Photo: Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com (Flickr)

Admittedly, I haven’t seen a film in that theater since 1995’s Braveheart, when the sign was already showing its age badly. Over the next few years, the neon lights that comprised the word “CINEMA” gradually blew out and/or broke, and weren’t replaced. Equally visually-crippling, sometime after Laurel Centre officially rebranded itself as “Laurel Mall” in April 1998, the sign lost its oval Laurel Centre logo which co-branded it with Laurel Shopping Center. The result was a blank white, functionless oval that projected off the sign like a tumor.

 

And when the Cinema finally closed again, the sign sat unused at all, simply gathering rust. I’d actually been wondering if there were going to be any plans to tear it down… before it eventually fell down on its own.

(Photo: Dan Gross, MD Gazette)

(Photo: Dan Gross, MD Gazette)

Fast-forward to just a couple of weeks ago, when a whimsical message appeared on the old marquee:

Photo: Federal Realty

Sure enough, within days—and despite the vicious DC heatwave I managed to avoid while in LA—friends were posting photos on Facebook of the sign coming down. And it was in this first one, by Joe Leizear, that something caught my eye:

Photo: Joe Leizear

Do you see it, too? Red lettering.

The word “LAUREL”in large, red block letters—not something that I had ever seen on the Cinema sign. In fact, it had been hidden beneath the Cinema marquee all along. I realized that the Cinema sign had merely covered the original Laurel Shopping Center sign, which I never had the chance to see before in person. In fact, it was only while recently digging through old directories that I came across a logo representation of it—this one from 1976:

 

 

Subsequent photos, such as the one below, showed the additional elements of the original sign, including the end of the arrow—which had been obscured all this time by the clumsy “Laurel Shopping Center” top band and aforementioned oval protrusion which covered/replaced the arrowhead:

(Photo: Federal Realty, via Laurel Patch)

Facebook user Spleenless Jen shared some fantastic images of what was left of the original panels before they were dismantled, shedding even more light on the faded red typography that had been hidden for over three decades:

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

That brings us to the new sign.

I’ve seen a few photos floating around, including an early artist’s rendering (the signature type of which has been modified in the final product, apparently).

Illustration: Federal Realty

Photo: Lisa Geiger

What to make of this more modernized and functional signage, which includes a digital screen and a colorful, decorative motif? Is it an improvement? Over a rusted, misused sign that was likely beyond repair—yes, absolutely. As a promising retail beacon that will draw shoppers for decades to come? Frankly, I’m not that optimistic.

For starters, nothing about the new sign is unique or differentiates it from countless other shopping centers. It’s not necessarily the sign’s fault, mind you—it takes more than just a sign to successfully brand a franchise. Unless someone is planning to update the entire shopping center and integrate the new motif—or at least the colors, to some degree—they’re stuck with a new sign that simply doesn’t fit the shopping center it’s intended to represent.

Worse, from a functionality standpoint, I would be deeply concerned about the feasibility of maintaining that video screen. Not to be a downer, but how long before a vandal (pedestrian or motorist) decides to shatter or otherwise deface it? Let’s be honest—Laurel has always had its share of ne’er-do-wells; and such fancy new devices—literally within arm’s reach—might as well include a sign with a bright red target that says “please vandalize me”. And historically, the shopping center and mall both have not exactly been great about maintaining features that require, well, maintenance. Remember the unique revolving carousel platform in the mall’s center court that eventually stopped revolving? And the very sign that we’re now discussing? My point exactly. If and when these types of things break repeatedly, shopping center management is likely to simply stop fixing it. And when it’s literally the face of the shopping center, such as this sign will be—the first thing visitors see upon approaching—that’s not good.

Granted, I’ve never bought a giant neon sign for a shopping center before, nor have I designed one (yet). But as a designer, my priority would always be to ensure that whatever sign I implemented was relevant and suited its environment. I wouldn’t include decorative elements that weren’t reflective of the larger shopping center itself. If the surrounding area was prone to or accessible to vandals, I wouldn’t position expensive components like digital screens close to street/sidewalk level. Moreover, I’d want to know all I could about the shopping center and its origins, and design a complete brand that highlighted its best features and spoke to its historical significance—and have the sign be the linchpin of that brand. Consider a book cover design; it needs to properly represent the story within—and it needs to attract readers. A shopping center sign isn’t much different in that regard.

Laurel Shopping Center opened in 1956, and arguably saw its best days in the 1960s. (I wasn’t born yet, so I can’t attest to that). But by most accounts, the shopping center was profitable and ever-expanding—a growth that continued well into the 70s with the addition of Georgetown Alley. There have been some aesthetic modifications over the years, for better or worse: awnings and storefronts have evolved, most notably. But the core design has remained the same. It’s still fundamentally a 1960s open-air shopping center; something that could’ve been embraced in the design of the new sign rather than mocked. “The 60s called and they want this sign back”. Really? I think the 60s called and expressed their hope that somebody would’ve had the foresight to restore the shopping center’s original sign, rather than replace it with a generic model that most likely won’t survive a third of the time that its predecessor did.

Even that fleeting glimpse of the old sign’s red lettering and bold arrow reveals a timeless typography that could’ve been resurrected and repurposed into a more suitable, modern sign; a melding of past and present that suggests a long-standing shopping center that the community is proud of. The new sign just doesn’t accomplish that.

Our friend John Floyd II supplied the following photos today, showing the base portion of the new sign already in place. Because the top piece had not yet been attached, he was able to point out something interesting: once again, part of the original sign is still being used—those two vertical I-beams. That original sign simply won’t die, it seems. He also astutely noted the issue with the decorative motif—even more bluntly than I had.

“That funky orange-and-brown block design on the sign’s plinth looks like the 1960s got traded in favour of the 1970s! Very disco and Brady Bunch-esque!”

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Coincidentally, the Laurel Centre/Mall notoriously replaced all of its original brown floor tile and wooden accents in 1991—less than 12 years after the mall opened—because management felt that it was “too 1970s”. Ironic that a 1970s pattern would now emerge on the brand new sign for Laurel Shopping Center.

Vintage 1970s drapes. Photo: monkeysox (Flickr)

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A Neighbor’s In Need: Let’s Help!

Last Fall, I was researching the history of Steward Manor Apartments when I stumbled across a photo on eBay.

Photo: John Floyd II, 1974.

It was part of a set of ten original prints being offered, which documented various vehicles from the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department and Laurel Rescue Squad in the 1970s. This particular image featured Laurel Rescue 19 (also known as “The Heavy”) leaving its quarters and turning onto Lafayette Ave.; and there in the distance was the familiar southwest corner of my old neighborhood—Steward Manor Apartments. Even the old red Volkswagen Karmann Ghia I remember walking past so many times en route to 7-Eleven, Dart Drug, or the mall was captured—parked right there where I remember it always sitting.

I eagerly bought the photos; and having noticed several other sets for sale, I messaged the seller, John Floyd II, who manages a wonderfully eclectic eBay store—Blackpool Bertie’s Railway Shop. I wondered if perhaps he had any other vintage photos of Steward Manor in his collection. We chatted back and forth, as I explained the premise of my research. I learned that John was a former fireman, and over the years (both before and after his tenures with volunteer fire companies in Laurel and New Jersey) he had diligently photographed firefighting apparatus, training exercises, and countless fires and accident scenes. Aside from this one photo, he didn’t recall having any others of Steward Manor; because as he explained, the old complex was virtually fireproof. He promised to take a look through his archives, though, and would let me know if he came across anything.

In the meantime, I began to take note of some of the other photos he was selling—photos that in a roundabout way, captured images of the Laurel, MD I used to know. Behind the firetrucks were long-gone storefronts from Laurel Shopping Center… the old Fair Lanes bowling alley sign… and a number of stunning photos from the very first Main Street Festival in 1981. I eagerly bought these, as well; and in effect, they turned out to be the inspiration for starting Lost Laurel. You’ve undoubtedly seen these photos throughout the blog and Facebook page.

Over the past several months, John has not only contributed more invaluable photos and historic information, he has become a good friend.

He’s also a bit of living Laurel history, himself. As a young lad, (as he might say in his subtle British accent) he and his mother came to America in 1957, settling in Laurel in 1964. Not long thereafter, his mom met and wed Mr. Harry Fyffe, co-owner (with his brother Walter) of the legendary Fyffe’s Service Center that stood at Montgomery and 10th Streets for so many years. By his early teens, John was helping out behind the bar, eagerly pulling pints for the regulars!

Still living in Laurel, (he’s lived in the same modest home since childhood—going on 50 years) he’s an active civic booster for the community, and for the nearby Laurel Police Department in particular. He’s also a fine horn player, as well. That was him you may have seen carrying the big antique silver Sousaphone, marching along with the West Laurel Rag Tag Band in this year’s Main Street Festival parade!

John has already shared with me a wealth of knowledge and photos of vintage Laurel—the likes of which I could not possibly have come across on my own. In fact, I’ve merely scratched the surface in terms of curating his vast contributions for Lost Laurel. Wait until you get a load of some of the treasures he’s shared from the 1960s and earlier—who knew Pal Jack’s was once a Bendix and Philco radio shop?!

Main Street in the 1940s… (Photo courtesy John Floyd II, from the collection of Harry Fyffe)

…and the same spot in 2007. (Photo: John Floyd II)

I can say with certainty that without John’s help, there wouldn’t be a Lost Laurel.

Much has happened in just the eight months since I’ve started this project. I’ve been interviewed by the Laurel Leader, and I’ve seen the Lost Laurel Facebook page grow to over 1200 fans. I’ve watched the blog soar to over 24,000 views. That was the good news. The bad news is that I’ve also seen more of the old Laurel fall—literally, in the case of the recent demolition of the blue American National Bank building. Also closing for good were my beloved Laurel Art Center, and even the Laurel Mall—something I never dreamed would’ve occurred in my lifetime, having grown up in its heyday.

Coincidentally, who walked over to the mall to photograph and share with Lost Laurel the very first photos of the “permanently closed for business” signs on the locked doors? John Floyd did.

Photos: John Floyd II

Unfortunately, there’s more bad news looming. This one isn’t about a longtime business closing, or an iconic building being razed. This one affects John personally; and for him, it could certainly be the toughest loss of all. He’s at risk of losing his home.

After missing a property tax deadline, I’ve learned that John’s home was actually SOLD at the county’s annual Tax Auction in May. He now has a very small redemption window in which to pay off the tax penalty, otherwise he’ll lose everything.

John would never ask for any kind of charity himself, so I’m going to pitch in and try to help. In fact, I’ve already gotten an earful from him for simply suggesting this little benefit idea. But I have to believe that at least a few of the folks who follow Lost Laurel will sympathize, and find it in their hearts to contribute whatever they can. And this is just too important to not at least try.

Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that John has been in a very tight financial spot for quite some time now. He has been without a car for nearly a decade, which not only limits his general mobility, but effectively ended his regular occupation as a musician with various orchestras and dance bands, jazz and ragtime bands, brass bands, and other vintage-style musical ensembles. It was a career he enjoyed for 26 years, working several thousand gigs overall. But without transportation, that work dried up years ago. Likewise, he’s been unable to sell his wares at firemen’s conventions and trade shows—something else that once regularly supplemented his pay.
His eBay sales have become his sole means of income, making him entirely dependent upon the computer for all of his meager earnings.

And unfortunately, his sales have dropped dramatically (by over 60%) in the current recession. An emergency veterinary bill for one of his many cats set him back a hefty sum earlier this year, and that only added to the larger problem—trying to meet the overdue property tax bill to the tune of nearly $3,300. And if it’s not paid by June 30th, the amount will increase to over $7,000 when Prince George’s County adds the 2012 tax bill (along with interest and penalties, legal and court costs, as well as “advertising costs” for the Tax Auction that has put his home at risk). Finally, if the full amount isn’t paid by July 31st, his redemption window slams shut and the new property owners will be free to initiate foreclosure and eviction proceedings. It’s a process that’s every bit as harsh as it sounds.

There’s some irony here, too. As a homeowner, John isn’t eligible for any kind of public assistance—not that he’d willingly accept it. If he were to be evicted, however, he’d likely be free to receive any number of benefits. He doesn’t want those handouts; he simply wants to pay off his debts and remain in the only home he’s known for the past 46 years. I’m hoping we can help him do that.

Unfortunately, P.G. County isn’t flexible in the least. Nor are they interested in John’s or anyone else’s problems. There’s no negotiating with them on the amounts or the due dates. It’s literally all or nothing.

Knowing that most of us are so routinely asked to contribute to various charities—we donate to our kids’ fundraisers; we contribute to relay races for cancer research; we send money to groups who build homes for homeless families in foreign countries—I realize that the bombardment of solicitations can be draining; which is why I very rarely ask for such favors. But I’m going to ask an important favor now—on behalf of a good friend in a time of need who has done so much for Lost Laurel.

If you would, kindly donate whatever you can to John Floyd. His email address is royalbluelimited@aol.com, and it is set up to receive PayPal payments. It could be a little or a lot—every dollar adds up. Most importantly, you will know that your contribution isn’t going to some anonymous organization. It’s going directly toward helping a fellow Laurelite in need—and a genuinely good bloke, as John would say. It’ll literally help him save his home.

To help kickstart this benefit, I’m also going to be offering a few special Lost Laurel incentive prizes to those who donate the most.
• All
contributions of $25 and over will receive a full-size, double-sided reproduction of a classic Jack Delaney’s Irish Pizza Pub carryout menu from 1981.
• The first two contributions of $50 or more will receive an original 24″ x 36″ lushly illustrated poster map of Laurel from 1993.
• The first contribution of $100 or more will receive a limited edition Marian Quinn print of the iconic Cook’s Hardware building, matted and framed by the Laurel Art Center.
• And the first contribution of $250 or more will receive a framed 23″ x 30″ vintage 1990s illustration of Main Street businesses—which hung hidden for years in the Laurel Art Center.

These are but a few things that I can offer for what I would consider substantial donations, but I would strongly encourage everyone who reads this to consider sending any amount they can, no matter how small. It truly will help. Imagine if each one of our 1200+ Lost Laurel Facebook friends sent just a dollar or two—John’s crisis could be averted.

There are other ways that you can help, as well. Please visit John’s eBay shop (http://stores.ebay.com/blackpoolbertiesrailwayshop) and buy his stuff! If it’s not your proverbial cup of tea, perhaps you know someone who is a railroad buff, a firefighting enthusiast, and/or a brass band, vintage jazz, and big band music connoisseur—trust me, you’ll find something they’ll appreciate! It goes without saying that John’s eBay record is a spotless one—100% with over 4,350 positive feedbacks. He takes great pride and care in shipping his items quickly and securely, too, as I can attest.

Conversely, perhaps you have some items that you could donate to John’s store that HE may sell. That would also be a major help. Please message me, or feel free to contact John directly (royalbluelimited@aol.com) to make arrangements. Those who donate the amounts listed above can also request that I give their award items to John instead, so that he may sell them.

We’ve all come to accept that Laurel is an ever-changing landscape, and a far cry from the town we once knew. Businesses and residents alike have come and gone—some of their own accord, and others due to various hardships. This, however, is a uniquely tragic situation that I believe we can actually help prevent. Please join me and pitch in what you can. Let’s make sure Laurel doesn’t lose one of its truest citizens.

John Floyd II outside the Laurel Art Center in April, where he also went to photograph the closing of another Laurel icon.

Please donate via PayPal directly to royalbluelimited@aol.com

Many thanks!!

~ ®

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Keller’s/Knapp’s Laurel News Agency

Watercolor by Cathy Emery

Every so often, you come across a picture—or in this case, a painting—that just instantly transports you back. And, more often than not, it’s a picture of something simple; something that was once a mundane part of your everyday life… which you naively assumed would be there forever.

Such was the case with Cathy Emery’s painting of Keller’s/Knapp’s Laurel News Agency. If you’d told me 30 years ago—when I was a kid, frequently stopping in Keller’s/Knapp’s for magazines, Chiclets fruit gum, Hostess pies, and the like—that there would one day be a painting of the establishment, (let alone that I would actually want it) I never would’ve believed you. But after the store that had graced (perhaps “graced” isn’t quite the word for it) the corner of Main and B Streets since the late 1940s had finally closed down and given way to the new Revere Bank building, that painting hits home.

It’s exactly as I remember it—the view from across the street, where you could already smell the mingling aroma of produce and newspapers. It may not sound like it, but it was a good smell.

A photo from the same angle appeared in the 1987 Citizens National Bank complimentary calendar (Photo: Susan L. Cave)

As wonderful as it was to see that familiar exterior again after all these years, it didn’t compare to the joy of getting to look inside.

On a recent visit to the Laurel Library, there in the March 14, 1985 issue of the Laurel Leader—appropriately headlining the Our Town section of the paper—was the smiling, laughing face of one Fred Knapp himself. And there he was, standing at his familiar post behind the cluttered counter of Knapp’s.

Fred Knapp. Laurel Leader Staff Photo by Tenney Mason, March 14, 1985

Venerable Leader writer Tony Glaros painted a warm portrait of Mr. Knapp and his memorable old store, and reading it now brings a smile and laugh as big as the one Mr. Knapp is shown enjoying in that photo. The article mentions his penchant for “dazzling his customers”:

“I know what they want before they get here, ” says Fred. “I look out the window and play this game. If I see a guy coming and I know what kind of cigarettes he gets or whatever, I have them ready when he gets here.”

This trait is reiterated later in the article in even more detail:

Fred already knows who smokes what brand, eats what candy and reads what newspaper. He greets them, firing off terms of affection in staccato fashion. “Hey, maestro!” “What else, love?” “Good morning, doctor.” “Thank you, darlin’. Have a good day and be careful out there.”

That’s the part that stuck with me the most. I can vividly recall being referred to as both “Maestro” and “Doctor” by Mr. Knapp. I remember thinking that was particularly cool, given that I was barely ten years old at the time.

The article included some interesting historical data, too. According to this, the newsstand had been operating out of the same location since June 21, 1947*, when Charlie Keller (Fred’s Knapp’s late father-in-law) first opened it. Fred worked for Mr. Keller “on and off” for thirty years, commuting by bus during the day to his job as an Army engineer at Fort Belvoir, VA, and helping Keller out at night. Mr. Keller died in 1978, and Fred took over the business—where it would remain a family affair until the end.

Fred, who was 52 years old at the time of the article, conceded that the hours were the toughest part of the job. “I come in at six o’clock in the morning, five in the summertime so I can catch the fishermen who want worms and beer and sodas and ice and all the junk like that.” It was a routine that he adhered to an astounding 13 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. His only respite, he said, were Sundays—when he’d sleep in until 10:30 before heading back to the store.

I also happened upon a Laurel Leader supplement from 1982, which featured an even wider view of the newsstand’s interior—with Mr. Knapp diligently restocking his ample periodical section:

And in a truly unique view, Tom Jarrell shared this shot from atop Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre in October 1988:

Photo: Tom Jarrell

Earlier this week, I posted the photo of Fred Knapp on the Lost Laurel Facebook page, where it yielded a flood of fond memories. But the best news of all came from Debbie Welch-Foulks, who is Mr. Knapp’s stepdaughter. She tells us that he is living in Elkridge, MD these days, and doing well! She added:

I just got him on the phone and was reading all the posts to him—he was laughing up a storm. He misses everyone….

Laurel misses you, too, Mr. Knapp. Very much so.

Postscript:
*Various ads cited “Since 1948”, but the Laurel Leader article is the only reference I’ve found that mentions an actual starting date of June 21, 1947.

A desolate view in 2007. (Photo: spork232, panoramio.com)
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Goodbye, Laurel Mall

Laurel Centre Mall, October 11, 1979 ~ May 1, 2012.

Photos: John Floyd II

Thanks to long-time Laurel resident John Floyd II for trekking over and confirming this week’s final closure. To my knowledge, there weren’t any press releases or announcements; just a handful of bright green flyers taped to the doors announced the final closure of the long-suffering Laurel Mall.

Much more to come on the mall’s closing soon, as well as some early articles and photos trumpeting its grand opening back in 1979—when it got substantially more respect than a few bright green flyers.

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Cook’s Laurel Hardware Co.

Long before Laurel’s labyrinthine Home Depot—and even Hechinger—there was a small hardware store on Main Street that seemed to carry everything. Just as importantly, they knew were everything was.

Perhaps, like me, you weren’t particularly handy with power tools (growing up in an apartment complex like Steward Manor with a highly-capable maintenance team can have that effect, you know.) But even if you’d never ventured inside Cook’s Laurel Hardware Company, chances are you remember seeing their iconic neon sign—a throwback to their 1938 origins—every time you passed by.

If you did go inside, chances are you remember the creaky wooden floors, patched together with metal flashing—also a testament to Cook’s 59 years of service to Laurel. Former customers of all ages fondly recall visits with parents, grandparents… and even dogs, which were welcomed inside.

For most of its long tenure on Main Street, the store was identifiable by that distinctive neon sign at least as much as its red brick exterior. Until 1983, however, when the store’s facade underwent a dramatic makeover—ivory and dark green paint brought new life to the Main Street classic.

Cook's original red brick facade can be seen in this 1975 photo of Laurel Rescue 19 and Engine 101 responding to a gas leak at 5th & Main Steets. (Photo: John Floyd II)

Laurel Leader, 1983

Cook's—with it's new paint—as it appeared in a 1987 Citizens National Bank courtesy calendar (Photo: Susan L. Cave)

But by the mid-1990s, Laurel was in full transition mode—adapting to the arrival of discount retailers such as Walmart, Sam’s Club, Target, Kohl’s, and The Sports Authority, among others. Main Street’s small shopkeepers struggled to secure their niche market amid the flurry of large-scale retailers. And ironically, it wasn’t the big box stores that ultimately doomed Cook’s—not completely, anyway. Technically, it was old people. Upon closing in the summer of 1997, the building was razed to make room for a 124-unit apartment building for senior citizens—Selbourn House.

In a Washington Post article that noted the impending closure, owner Bob Cook—a longtime member and president of the Laurel Board of Trade—regretted shuttering the old hardware store that bore his name, but he remained surprisingly optimistic for the town:

While he laments the store’s closing, Cook views it as part of the transformation begun three years ago by Laurel’s government and business leaders to boost employment, spur economic development and make the most of Laurel’s location, halfway between Baltimore and the District. Cook believes the proposed senior housing complex will help draw people to city streets, where eventually they will shop with tourists who are drawn to stores selling antiques and crafts.

Washington Post, 1997

Cook’s Laurel Hardware Company has been gone now for some 15 years, but in many ways, it lives on—and not just in memories.

Norman James, Jr. is an accomplished sign maker whose passion is in documenting, rescuing, and restoring classic neon signs of the Baltimore/Washington area. He then showcases the old beauties he’s rescued (as well as some that he couldn’t) on his website, often with fantastic historical notes that may have otherwise been lost to the ages.

Norm lost his bid to procure the Cook’s sign in 1997; and for the next 11 years, it sat in the coffee shop just across the street from the old hardware store itself. But, fast-forward to 2008—and the coffee shop itself was closing. Better late than never, Norm was more than willing to once again give the 400-pound, 6′ x 6′ sign a good home.

Courtesy of Norman James, Jr. (http://www.normanssigngarden.mysite.com)

During his restoration, Norm uncovered (literally) an old secret behind the Cook’s sign:

“HIDDEN MESSAGE! I discovered the lower portions, or ‘Cook’s’ panels were lay-overs, concealing the original message. Lucas Paints were manufactured in Pennsylvania for about 75 years when bought out by Sherwin-Williams, in the early 1950’s. The owner of Laurel Hardware had his name added to the sign to cover over the Lucas paints portion, which only was exposed for about the first ten years of the life of the sign. I also discovered the faded nameplate of the original manufacturer of the sign…Triangle in Baltimore. The ‘John Tingen’ lettering was probably from the time the ‘Cooks’ layovers were created.”

You’ll often hear folks talk about the experience of walking through a mom & pop hardware store, and its ambiance: the smell of cut plywood and 2 x 4s; the close proximity of shelves full of nails, drywall screws, and countless other fasteners; the sound of a paint mixer. Nowhere was that experience more appreciable than Cook’s. Sure, Home Depot probably has everything and then some; but sometimes, what a customer really wants is the chance to browse at his or her own pace in a welcoming environment. Preferably one with an old, creaky wooden floor.

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One building, two grand openings… exactly 30 years apart

Photo: Don Knieriem

Today marked the long-awaited grand opening of the new LA Fitness at Laurel Shopping Center.

The new fitness mega-center occupies the site of the original Hecht Co. building; but with its massive architectural makeover, it bears little to no resemblance to Hecht’s—or to Toys R Us, which most recently left a lasting label scar on the building that once also housed Woolco and Jamesway.

Photo: Benoit6 (Flickr)

And speaking of Woolco, it was actually 30 years ago this very day when it had its grand opening in the very same building—March 31, 1982.

Let’s hope for the sake of LA Fitness (and more importantly, for the city of Laurel) that this new tenant proves to have considerably more long-term success. Woolco, unfortunately, went on to occupy the building for just one year before closing. But then again, they never had a swimming pool, basketball courts, and tons of gym equipment.

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Time-Out Family Amusement Center

Laurel Centre, early 1980s (Photo: timeouttunnel.com)

Like countless Laurel kids who grew up in the 1980s, there’s never been any hesitation in my reply when asked what my favorite place was at Laurel Centre. It was and always will be Time-Out.

The small, crowded, video game arcade on the upper level near center court was a constant cacophony of digitized noise. Even before entering, you could recognize specific sounds over the din: Pac Man gobbling ghosts, a lost life in Donkey Kong, pinball paddles flapping, and quarters being dispensed by a Rowe bill changer.

I can’t begin to estimate how many games were actually in use at Laurel’s Time-Out; I’m sure it changed over the years. Pinball, obviously on the wane with the ascension of video games, was gradually relegated to the back wall of the arcade. The arcade cabinets multiplied over the years, until gamers found themselves practically elbow to elbow.

If I recall correctly, the more popular games (and new arrivals) were typically housed near the front of the arcade. There may have even been two Pac Man machines to accommodate the frenzy (or dare I say, the Pac Man Fever) in 1980–81. I remember Pac Man being on the left of the room, near the front. I think I ultimately spent more time on the right side of the arcade, however; playing a selection of games that—at the time—seemed to be setting unprecedented standards for graphics.While late 1970s games such as Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Galaxian were established classics and remained popular, 1981–82 marked a dramatic change with the arrival of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Pole Position, Tron, Xevious, and others. Q*bert was another fan favorite at Time-Out around this same period, as was Popeye, which sat just a space or two away in a Nintendo cabinet very much like that of Donkey Kong.

Pole Position (and Pole Position 2, the following year) were always popular driving games—complete with steering wheel and gas pedal controls—but Spy Hunter was, in my humble opinion, better than both combined. I can’t remember if Time Out had the stand-up or sit-down model (or both, at some point), but either was well worth a few quarters.

Of course, the games didn’t only take quarters—they took tokens. Official Time-Out tokens, which were like gold to kids—especially if we found coupons for free tokens. Every so often, a free newspaper would be distributed throughout Laurel. (Ad Bag, perhaps?) And occasionally, inside this publication would be a coupon for one free Time-Out token. Needless to say, those of us who grew up in apartment complexes like Steward Manor saw the stacks of these Ad Bags in hallways as a literal gold mine of Time-Out tokens. Naturally, cashing them in was the tough part—as the attendants quickly began to recognize the kids coming in with more than one coupon…

 

 

To date, I’ve only found the one photo of Time-Out at Laurel Centre. Surely, someone thought to bring a camera inside at some point; but then again, who had time to take pictures when games like Track & Field or Yie Ar Kung-Fu became available? One had to be ready with one’s quarters (or tokens) when the games opened up.

While the following images are almost certainly not from the Laurel location, they do convey the essence of Time-Out that most of us remember—the brightly-colored wall graphics contrasted with the dark ceiling that seemed to disappear into a night sky; the ambient lighting creating a perfect environment for the gaming experience.

These interior photos were found at a fantastic site called TimeOutTunnel.com—a virtual museum curated by Peter Hirschberg, who has gone more than a mere step beyond. His tribute site not only houses a tremendous repository of Time-Out photos and artifacts, but Peter has painstakingly recreated a number of details—such as the iconic signage within most locations, and wickedly sweet 3D renderings of store fronts and games themselves. Seriously—prepare to be amazed.

Yes, he got the details right all the way down to the trash cans!

Remember the High Score of the Week cards that sat atop each game? Peter has even recreated them—in all the correct colors. Didn’t I say you’d be amazed?

It’s always been a dream of mine to have a basement full of vintage 1980s arcade cabinets. Or even one, for that matter. I don’t even care if its something like Root Beer Tapper—it doesn’t have to be the top of the line, most popular game of all time. But realistically, space (or lack thereof) and the fact that the Xbox 360 has done the unthinkable—made video arcades irrelevant—have pushed that goal quite far to the back burner.

But in the meantime, I have indulged my old school arcade affinity on a much smaller scale. My miniature arcade, built by the incredibly talented Justin Whitlock, sits on a shelf in my studio above my desk—a constant reminder of Time-Out and the countless hours of entertainment it provided. If you have quarters, you’re welcome to come by anytime. Just don’t expect to play Spy Hunter. Boba Fett—not the most considerate of action figures—tends to hog the machine all day.

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Signs of the Times: Disappearing Neon of Route 1

Route 1 has seen a change or two over the past century, hasn’t it?

The black and white photos above are from the Laurel, Maryland Centennial Souvenir Historical Booklet (1970), and show what—for most of us who grew up in Laurel in the last quarter of the 20th century—is a very familiar scene from 1970. However, the current street view is almost as unrecognizable as the sparse 1907 tableau.

There probably isn’t another stretch of road in Laurel that was more densely populated with over-sized neon signage than this particular corridor; and slowly but surely, they’re disappearing from the landscape. A savvy photographer (with the right telephoto lens) might have been able to capture quite a few of them in a single shot from the right vantage point. At one time—within less than half a mile from each other—one could see not only the Tastee-Freez/Big T and Texaco signs shown above—but those of Arby’s, Giant, and the Laurel Cinema marquee.

Photo: Maryland Route 5 (Flickr)

Photo: Maryland Route 5 (Flickr)

photo: apricotX (Flickr)

The Arby’s and Giant signs are still fully functional, and both are fortunately still open for business. While the Laurel Cinema marquee is technically still standing, it’s in poor shape—and with the movie theater officially closed (again), it’s probably only a matter of time before the old sign is finally torn down.

One interesting detail I noticed in the 1970 shot is the wording of “Big Tee Burgers”. At some point after, it had been skillfully modified to read “Big T Family Restaurant”, as it remained until its ultimate demise.

Photo: stgermh (Flickr)

Another reader noted that the road doesn’t appear to have been widened much over the years, either. Apparently, somebody reasoned that if it was big enough for all those neon giants, it’d be big enough for whatever vehicular traffic might pass through.

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Main Street Festival #1

On the Saturday of every Mother’s Day weekend in May since 1981, Laurel has hosted its annual Main Street Festival. The entire length between Rt. 1 and 7th Street is closed to traffic as pedestrians literally fill Main Street—sampling foods from local vendors, listening to music, entering raffles, and just generally having the proverbial grand old time. Now into its 31st year, the event has grown to attract between 75,000 and 100,000 visitors annually.

These photos, courtesy of retired Laurel volunteer firefighter John Floyd II, give a unique glimpse of the very first Main Street Festival—at a simpler time when a number of long-gone names graced the buildings that mostly still remain: Caswell’s Upholstery & Laurel Draperies, Macrame Plus, Laurel Business Machines, Dougherty’s Pharmacy, Barkman’s Florists, Antonio Gatto Custom Tailor, Laurel School of Classical Ballet, Pal Jack’s Pizza (closed in December 2010), Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre, Equitable Trust Bank, Laurel Printing Company, and Gayer’s Saddlery (now Outback Leather).

You can almost smell the funnel cakes…


Photos: John Floyd II
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