Signs of the Times

Balton Sign Company has been giving local businesses a good name for more than 135 years.

photograph courtesy Balton Sign Company

What do a 75,000-gallon tub of ice cream, a 2,000-pound electric guitar, and an eight-foot-tall fire hydrant have in common?

They are all signs fabricated by Balton Sign Company of Memphis, considered one of the oldest sign designers and manufacturers in America. The ice cream carton promotes the headquarters of Baskin-Robbins, the guitar beckons visitors to the Hard Rock Café, and the fire hydrant serves as a message board for the Memphis Fire Department station on Ridgeway.

They are just three of countless signs Balton, now run by a fifth generation of the family, has erected over the years. The firm got its start in 1875, when D.F. Balton came to Memphis from New Orleans and began painting houses. “One day somebody asked if he could paint a name on his business, and he did such a good job that somebody else asked if he could put a name on his business,” says Mark Balton, with the company’s sales department, “and it just kept going.”

The early signs were handpainted or constructed from wood. It wasn’t long before Balton began to fabricate incredibly artistic signs using a new material called neon, and soon buildings around Memphis and the Mid-South had their names emblazoned in flashing glass tubing in all the colors of the rainbow. “According to our company records, the first neon sign in this area was for a Shell gas station in West Memphis,” says Balton. “People came from miles around to see it turned on.”

In the 1940s, the company’s specialty was elaborate theater marquees and eye-catching signs for car dealerships. Then one day, a fellow named Kemmons Wilson approached Balton for a sign for his fledgling hotel chain. “We designed the original Holiday Inn sign,” says Balton. “Kemmons at first balked at the high price of it, but we convinced him it was worth it.” That was a smart move; what became known as the “great sign” is today recognized as one of the finest neon creations of all time.

If a building has a sign in Memphis — mounted on a pole, stretching across the roof, or sitting on a base — chances are Balton made it. Mark Balton says his grandfather helped liquor store owner Joe Solomito build the famous Sputnik Star sign, and in the 1980s, newer generations of the family got it whirling again.

Balton signs are known for their attention to detail. A close look at the giant guitar hanging outside the Hard Rock Café reveals seemingly genuine pickups, tuners, and volume knobs. The double row of neon strings is designed to “vibrate” as if they were plucked.

Creativity is another part of it. When Hanley Elementary School needed a new sign, Balton created one with the school’s tiger mascot at the top, but instead of a regular pole, they mounted the sign on a giant yellow pencil, with the name of the principal stamped into the side. Another school here, Dunbar Elementary, liked that sign so much that Balton made a similar one for them, but instead of a yellow #2 pencil, their sign is supported by a giant purple crayon.

Many of the projects offer special challenges. That giant tub of ice cream is built from a complex web of steel framing, then covered with an aluminum skin, which was originally painted with the Angel Food logo. As the company name has changed over the years, the sign has been repainted, but it’s needed no repairs, even after enduring “Hurricane Elvis” and the heat of many Memphis summers.

In recent years, Balton has branched into new ventures, including what are called “message centers” — illuminated panels that can carry changing text or images. These can be as simple as bank signs that show the time or temperature, to signs such as the one at Memorial Park that present messages. One of the most elaborate of these stands outside Christian Brothers High School, where an ever-changing high-resolution display often includes full-color portraits of the school’s students or faculty.

A tour of the company’s sprawling factory on Southwall Road, close to Lamar and I-240, reveals computerized machines that cut and bend plastic, aluminum — just about any material, really — into any form desired. Despite advances in technology, however, much of the work, such as the delicate bending of neon tubes, is still done by hand.

“I started here sweeping floors some 30 years ago,” says Mark Balton, “but I learned the whole sign business from my father, who used to drive me around town and point out signs our company had made.” Mark’s own son is working on his CPA, but “one day he said to me, ‘Dad, I want to be a sign man just like you.”

A “sign man.” Such a simple, almost quaint term, harking back to the days when a firm’s name was painted on a board by a person holding a brush. Nowadays, the signs are computer designed from space-age materials, and illuminated by neon or LEDs, but the goal is the same. As Balton says, “to make customers think, ‘This is an exciting place to go.’”


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