In the showcase of giant electric signs that is on display in Midtown Manhattan every night, there’s a new Top Banana. Tonight marks the debut of the largest array of kaleidoscopic glory ever to bejewel New York’s Times Square.
Taking over the entire block of Broadway between 45th and 46th St., tonight’s debut of the 8 story-tall, football field-long, 24 million pixel LED leviathan will feature a digital art exhibition by the Universal Everything studio. Starting on Thanksgiving, it will be taken over by Google, who purchased exclusive advertising rights at least until New Year’s Eve.
The sign’s owner, Vornado Realty Trust, is promoting this latest entry into the Pantheon of Ginormous Signs. But they are certainly not the first to demonstrate that when it comes to advertising, Size Matters. Here’s a rundown of some of the other giant signs that have, with varying degrees of success, outsized their message.
The Hollywood Sign is likely the first giant ad to come to mind. Built in 1923 by the Crescent Sign Company to promote a real estate development, the 45-foot tall sheet metal letters spelled “Hollywoodland” for over 350 feet across a mountaintop. Each letter was illuminated by a string of 8-watt light bulbs mounted on its face. Sign repair workers everywhere bow their heads in reverence at the mention of employee Albert Kothe, who was said to live in a shack at the base of the “Y” and was faced with the unenviable daily task of replacing these bulbs while suspended by wires from the top of each letter.
Subsequently, the electric bills were seen as superfluous and the wiring was stripped out. The “H” was demolished by a drunk driver who swerved into it, and the rest of the sign fell into general disrepair when the mountaintop became the site for an early FM radio station in the 1940s. In the postwar years, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce took over ownership of the sign, knocked down the “LAND,” and watched it crumble further into erosion and decay.
In 1978 a number of civic-minded celebrities raised the funds to rehabilitate the sign, to where it proudly stands today, the Colossus of California.
Le Signe Énorme
Citroën made cool cars in 1920’s France, and to promote its brand of sweet styling and innovative suspension decided to go super sensationnel by renting out the Eiffel Tower for nine years, from 1925-1934. They emblazoned their logo along two sides of the tower, spanning the entire 300 meter height. Comprised of over a quarter-million light bulbs and 60 kilometers of cable, the sign was visible to Parisian suburbanites 100 kilometers away, and Charles Lindburgh is said to have used the light from this sign as a beacon during his famed transatlantic flight. Alas, the sign was extinguished when the company went bankrupt and couldn’t pay their electric bills, but was memorialized in postcards, newsreels, and in the Guinness Book of World Records.
King Kong Floppy
When the King of the Apes spent time in New York in the 1933 movie named for him, of course he had to visit the top of the magnificent newly-opened Empire State Building. But by the time the building’s 50th anniversary rolled around, the building had lost some of its brand luster. Enter Harry and Leona Helmsley, the building’s owners, with a brainstorm of gargantuan proportions – bring the gorilla back! This time as the mother of all inflatables.
Unfortunately the execution was not as stupendous as the concept. The 1 1/2-ton balloon arrived in a crate that wouldn’t fit into the elevator. The workers spent a day unpacking it and jamming it into the elevator, but apparently the big galoot suffered an injury in the process. When it was installed and inflated, New Yorkers shrugged when they noticed the sagging airbag, which was hurriedly removed due to the bent publicity.
The Mountainous Muffler Men
Standing broadly astride the path between the American commercial landscape and American Folklore stands Paul Bunyan, sturdy as a redwood tree, ready to fell twenty trees with one swing of his Humvee-sized axe. Though long a favorite character among lumberjacks, the exploits of Paul Bunyan rose to national recognition when promoted by William B. Laughead, who featured the character in pitches for the Red River Lumber Company in the early 1920’s. Promotional storybooks were distributed, and the now-emergent folk hero was subsequently found hawking dozens of products and services.
Enter the International Fiberglass company, who built giant molds of Paul Bunyan figures in various positions, and marketed them as attention-grabbing road signs. Within a decade, thousands of smiling plaid-shirted Bunyans were towering over small towns everywhere. Commonly known as “Muffler Men” (since they were posed holding a muffler), they also were used in the service of selling tires, hot dogs, in the Humble and Philips Petroleum franchises, and by Chambers of Commerce to promote their towns.
As production and shipping costs rose in the 1970s, the company was sold and subsequently closed. The valuable molds of these titans vanished into the aether of mergers, takeovers and salvage. But hundreds of these leviathans still stand as roadside attractions across America, many adapted to different characters with a coat of paint or new accessories, or still as Paul Bunyan originals, smiling down on us all, perhaps seeking out his blue ox Babe, or perhaps just wondering where all the trees went.