Lonnie Tettaton is the maestro of wall signs in St. Louis, whether that sign is done from scratch, using either client’s or his own design, or it is one to be carefully “touched up”such as the historic Bull Durham Tobacco sign in downtown Collinsville, Illinois. Every journeyman signpainter has a helper, and Lonnie started his career as a helper at Kirn Sign Company in 1958. After three years at Kirn he struck out on his own and he has been painting signs all over the metro area ever since. Some of these signs are decidedly artistic and have either a retro-look such as the highly-visible Lemp Mansion wall mural seen on I-55 South, or done in the style of trompe l’oeil [“trick of the eye”] such as the large, mimetic Greek architecture mural at 7th and Locust Streets downtown. In the past, Tettaton has run a School of Lettering & Design, and his Nutwood Publishing Company has put out books on signs and sign making. His life as a signpainter is detailed in a memoir, The Great St. Louis Adventure.
A few years back, Lonnie lost a leg due to a fall from a ladder followed by complications from a series of failed operations. Yet, he remained active. Although his climbing-up-on-scaffolding days were over, he continued to take on sign work with the help of another signpainter. Now all that has changed. In November, 2012, when I phoned him for this interview he answered the call from a hospital bed. He had broken his hip, he said, offering the perfectly plausible explanation that “it’s hard to keep your balance with only one leg.” In a few months Lonnie will turn 76. We wish him a speedy recovery and the chance to create many more signs. Meanwhile, here is a glimpse of his early life as a walldog.
“I was just out of high school, selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias, which wasn’t too good, and then I had a chance to get on as a helper at Kirn Sign. I had always been interested in lettering and signs and posters. I was taking commercial art at Hadley Tech [Hadley Technical High School], and I would ride the street car to school down Grand Avenue. All the storefronts had signs, and I thought that would be a good thing to get into.
“Helpers did a lot of the menial work. We coated billboards before they would be painted. We would clean billboards and neon signs, paint this or that. Kirn Sign made a lot of patterns for neon signs and plastic signs and your lettering had to be perfect. If a customer was going to spend a lot of money for a nice sign then you can’t have any mistakes in the lettering. You had to make it look professional. Later on, after I’d been there a while, I was making paper patterns for all those signs.
“After three years I broke away and went off on my own. I went out on the streets hustling for business. I picked up some billboard work and anything else that came my way. I was hungry for experience. You take a job and then you figure out how to do it. I had some tough ones, but I couldn’t quit. There were times I had to think about it and wonder what am I doing this for, but then I would just go ahead and hit it straight on and figure out how to work it.”
Every novice needs a mentor.
“There was an old-time signpainter, E.C. Matthews, who had his shop on Cass Avenue. I would go by there and ask questions and he threw me a little job once in a while. Matthews was a legend among the old school signpainters. He had even written books on the subject that many of us carried around. One was called Signs Up-To-Now 18 Easy Lessons and another was How To Paint Signs and Sho Cards. I got to know him and listened to his stories. He had a lot of stories to tell. He had three rooms in a four story building there on Cass. He had a coal stove in the front room and he would build a nice fire in the morning and stoke it well and it would last him all day long. That front room was his studio. He slept in the middle room and the back room was for storage. He would eat most of his meals out. He didn’t have a telephone. If someone wanted a sign painted they would drop by and catch him in. People brought trucks and there were all kinds of signs to be painted. Whatever came along, he would do it. He would letter their trucks out on the street on in the backyard.”
“He liked to hang around the shop and he was reluctant to take on a job that would take him away from there. He taught me gold leaf, and here’s a story about that. Back then, I would take any work I could get, whether or not I was confident that I could actually do it. I mean, there were so many different types of signs. Well, I got this contract to do a gold leaf job at a supply company on 23rd and Washington. They wanted their emblem in the middle of this nice, big window along with a couple of gold stripes and some lettering. See, I’d just heard about gold leaf, I’d never done it, and I went to Matthews and told him that I got this job and if he would help me I would split the pay with him. It was a snowy, slushy day and he said, ‘You aren’t going to get me out on a day like this, but I’ll show you how to do it.’ So he goes through all of the steps of gold leaf preparation. He got out the gelatin capsule and he boiled it in water, then he strained it off into a little jar. We used a window from his studio. He made a pattern and put it on the outside of the window, then he applied the gold leaf and went to lettering—you know, you do it in reverse, the letters.
“So, while I had it it fresh on my mind, I left his shop and went to the jobsite. Like I said, it was a nasty, dreary day and if the windows are cold they’re going to sweat and the gold leaf may not stick. Well, I took a piece of cardboard and fanned the window to keep it from sweating up, and when it dried I went ahead and did the lettering like he showed me. The next day I went back to see him and he asked how did the gold leaf job turn out. I said that it turned out pretty good. He said, ‘Well, it’s a good thing that you didn’t know you couldn’t do that, because when the weather’s bad like that, it’s bad for gold leaf, too.’ So, it’s a good thing that I didn’t know what I was doing, because if I did I’d have probably never tried to do it.”
Where was your studio at that time?
“It was in the basement of an old building on 13th and Monroe. North City. It had been a coal shed and I painted signs there. I was getting to be pretty independent.”
You had your own equipment?
“Yeah, when I first went into business I had to get a stage and the falls and the ladders and so forth. I had a truck, an old Chevy pickup—an older model, maybe a ’48.”
Which job early on really helped you turn the corner?
“Marx Hardware on 14th Street. It’s still there today, and run by Steve Marx. But this was 55 years ago, when Steve’s grandfather had it. He had a sign that had been there for decades so it needed to be repainted. Then there was Al’s Auto Sales on North Florissant and Warren, not far from Marx Hardware. Al had a big wall up the street and he wanted a sign on it. A friend and I solicited him for the job, but he stopped short of hiring us. Al was one of those skeptical old Germans and he just wasn’t sure about us. Then we told him that we were working just over on 14th so he went over and looked at what we’d done and that did the trick. Al said that if anybody could do a job for old man Marx, then they were good enough for him.”
And all this time you are learning as you go?
“Yes, I am learning as I go. I made a lot of wall signs and at one time I had at least one sign on every block downtown. Back when it was a more commercial area with lots of stores and shops. There was plenty of business going on. It was a good thing, too, because I had gotten married and had a little baby.”
What preparation would you make in anticipation of a big job?
“After talking with the customer and getting a sense of what he wanted, I would go back to the shop and make a scaled sketch of what the sign was going to look like. Sometimes there was a pattern or a logo that the customer was particular about and I’d incorporate that into the layout. Then I’d go back to the customer, show him the sketch, exactly how the sign would look, and give him the price. If he liked it, then I got the job. Basically, I worked from a small two-dimensional scaled sketch to create the finished product.”
Did you have mechanical drawing in high school?
“No, I learned to do layouts while working at Kirn Sign Company. I learned to use a scale ruler and I learned a lot of ways that layouts may be done. That was good experience for me there, because those layouts had to be right on the money.”
You were feeling pretty good about yourself back then.
“Oh yeah, but it was a struggle. At one point I quit working for myself and went to Righty Electric over in Granite City, Illinois. They were doing neon and plastic signs as well as electrical contracts. We lived there in Granite City, just me and my wife and the baby in a little two-room flat. That fall, I got laid off. We took the last check and went to the Ozarks, had a little vacation. When we came back, I hit the streets, beating the bushes. I’d go out by day and hustle up work and at night, any work I might have gotten, I’d sketch it out on the kitchen table and it was just enough to skim by.
“My first big job back then was Merrill Moving and Storage, on Grand Avenue near Page. It was a huge sign that stretched across the building about 100 feet and it was about 40 to 50 feet high. The sign said ‘Merrill Moving and Storage’ and it was going to be lettered within a big arch. I had talked the owner into including that arch as part of the sign, but when I got up there I thought, ‘How in the hell am I going to put an arch all across that big building with 10 foot high letters?’ Now, I’m no whiz at geometry and I’m not very good at math, but I figured it out. I got a center line and made an arch and it turned out pretty good.”
Do you recall what you were paid for that job?
“It was fourteen hundred back in 1959 or 1960. I remember I went to meet the guy but just before I had burnt the side of my neck, spilled some scalding water on it. I get there and I am sweating and uncomfortable in his office. He asked me how much is it and I said, ‘Well, ah, about fourteen hundred.’ And he said, ‘Well, what is it—fourteen hundred or something else?’ And I said ‘Yeah, it is fourteen hundred.’ I learned right there that when you are giving someone the price, you don’t hesitate, here is the price. Write it on a slip of paper and hand it to him. Don’t be wishy washy thinking they won’t accept it or think that they will beat you down.”
You had some close calls while on the job.
“Oh, yeah, I had several of them. One time I had a rope break on the side of a water tower, a bubble type tank out in Lake St. Louis [St. Charles County]. This painting contractor wanted a Fleur De Lis and letters reading ‘Lake St. Louis’ on the water tower for everyone to see. He had a couple of guys go up and try to paint it and they totally screwed it up, so he came to me to straighten it out and finish it. I agreed, but when I got to the job I saw that his equipment was really old. He had a little half-inch rope and I told him that I don’t like the looks of that rope, but I went up and did the job anyway. I’d just gotten it finished and they were letting me down when that damn rope broke. We were using double-single rope pulleys and I was hitched up to that. I was choking all four lines when the rope broke. There was one big jerk and I dropped about 10 feet before I squeezed all of them together with both hands, the ropes. That slowed it down so I was able to make it down to the ground. They [the ground crew] were more nervous than I was. I figured I better go back up and take the rest of the rigging down, because it was bothering me. I thought maybe I would be afraid to climb again.”
But climb you did and heights became a part of your existence. Eventually, though, the odds caught up with you.
“I broke my feet and ankle. I was out at Parkway High School, doing graphics on a wall. I was up on a step-ladder, a 10 footer, and I slipped and fell and landed flat on my feet. I didn’t try to get up, I knew it was bad. Anyway, I went to the hospital and they did surgery and put plates and pins in my feet. About three years ago  it really started bothering me, all of that stuff had started working loose. So, they operated again and put a rod in my shin bone. They removed some of the old hardware and put in new plates and pins. I got a staph infection, which was resistant to everything they tried. The staph got into the bone and they had to take some bone out. After more operations, six I think, taking out meat and bone and metal, they couldn’t get rid of that staph and so they amputated from the knee down.
“It was a dangerous and high work I did for all of those years and never got hurt. Then I got hurt while on a step-ladder.”
Now, you’re back in the hospital.
“Yes, with only one leg it’s hard to keep your balance, so I fell and broke my hip. I was doing a window job out in Maplewood. It’s funny because the last couple years sign work had dropped off and then someone put my work on the Internet and all of a sudden I’m getting calls from people looking for hand lettering on windows, something I could do without being on a tall ladder, and now I’m screwed because of the fall.”
It is tough luck, but somehow you’ll overcome it. Last question: Think back, what was your reaction the first time you were called a walldog?
“Well, it fits because I like to get out and work on the walls. The big sign companies had two sets of workers, the commercial sign people usually got to stay inside the shop and do the clean, intricate work and the other bunch they’d send out on the dirty old walls. They’d get onto the rigging, climb over the firewall, slap paint everywhere—they’d go out on any job in all kinds of weather, they didn’t care. They called them walldogs. No, I didn’t mind being called a walldog, not at all. At least I knew I was in good company.”