A “Clem” Sign Surfaces
By John R. Greenwood
By John R. Greenwood
This short email recently arrived from the West Village in NYC:
I recently picked up a very cool wooden sign that has a “Clem” Signs signature on both sides. After trying to find some history online, I saw your post. Can you give me some info on “Clem”?
Looks like Christmas may have arrived early for this blogger. I was excited beyond words. A Walter Clements original found it’s way to the Big Apple and I was about to find out how. I sent back a response within minutes. I assured Mr. DeCanio that I could indeed provide some history and a few stories about “Clem” to boot. The only thing I asked for in return was to know how he acquired it and would he send me a photo. I gave him a brief history of myself and how I became so interested in an old Saratoga sign painter named Walter Clements aka “Clem” Signs. I wanted desperately to speak with Mr. DeCanio so I included my phone number in my response. I was hoping he would be equally excited to speak with me about Clem. A couple days passed and I began to worry. Did I overdue my response and scare him off? Maybe he wasn't that interested after all.
Two days later my wish came true, along with a response from Jeff DeCanio he sent a photo of each side of Clem’s “Cocktail Lounge” sign. There was no doubt about the authenticity, it was clearly a “Clem” sign and wow, what a beauty it was! I knew it had to be from Saratoga Springs. Then I remembered from some of my other posts that Clem had done a lot of work at the Adelphi. He’d painted the A’s on the front doors and made other signs there. I delivered milk to the Adelphi through the 1980’s and that sign seemed familiar. The patina matched the dark decor of the hotel too. The hotel was also being renovated presently, so it made sense that some pieces and parts were being scattered about the country.
Here’s my response to Jeff after seeing the photos he’d sent:
Wow, Christmas in August! I can't tell you how excited I was to see that sign. It's a "Clem" Sign for certain and I'm pretty sure I will be able to confirm where it came from. I'm writing you from my car as I wait for my wife to get out of work. I will write again later when I have more time. I wanted to thank you right away. This was a real gift to see this. You can call me at your convenience. I'm in the same boat. It's August in Saratoga and crazy here too. May I ask where you found the sign? Were there any items from the Adelphi Hotel where you found this?
Smiling in Saratoga
I soon found out that my instincts were spot on. The next day at work my phone rang. The number was unfamiliar but it was from New York, New York. It had to be my new “Clem” contact from the West Village. I bolted for the conference room for some quiet and privacy.
“Hello, is this John Greenwood? This is Jeff DeCanio, I’m the guy with the Clem sign.”
An instant friendship was born.
This is the type of joy life should consist of. Those simple moments of connection and discovery that we make in our normal everyday lives. You don’t need phone app’s or expensive vacations to savor life, you need people and a purpose. Whether it’s collecting antiques or taking pictures, painting a landscape, or writing stories about trips to the store it’s all about attitude and spirit. For me, receiving that phone call from NYC was food for the soul. Documenting these little vignettes of time, in my mind, is what fuels this journey that began in 1955. That’s a lot of vignettes and a lot of living. There’s plenty of joy and happiness to harvest out of that field.
After brief introductions we got down to Clem and the sign. It turns out that Jeff was on a vacation upstate when he wandered in to an antique store in Hudson, NY called “Ida’s Eye.” It was there he discovered the “Cocktail Lounge” sign. He said it fit the vibe of the restaurant so well he just had to have it. He said he was told the sign came from the Adelphi Hotel. I told him one of the last things Clem painted around Saratoga was the side of my Price’s Dairy milk truck. That was in the mid 80’s and Clem was in his seventies at the time.
|Notice Clem's hand-painted hat |
Photo Courtesy of Valerie Adinolphi
I remember the day he painted the “Price’s Dairy” clearly. Clem didn’t drive so a local plumber named Ron “Pooch” Coleman drove Clem out to the where I had the truck. He set up two step ladders with a simple scaffolding system. He carefully measured out the letters in a curved manner just as I’d asked him to do. He had a wide array of stencils and when I saw the calligraphic type he had I knew it would look great in forest-green on my crisp white truck. I think he was hoping for a much more straight forward type with no curves but he obliged and got right to work sketching the letters out in pencil as I headed off to make my deliveries in another truck. I remember being excited to see the end result later that day. It wasn’t the design or the look that I felt so satisfied with, it was the fact that it was hand-made advertising done the old-school way. Now they print out a graphic on a machine and wrap entire trucks in sticky vinyl. Yes, some are vivid and colorful, but my truck was an original painting, by the original artist. It is my opinion that deep inside the sign painter Walter Clements lay a true artist who would have given anything to have been a renowned painter of landscapes or portraits. He painted signs to eat and stay warm. Every time I looked at that green Price’s Dairy on the side of my truck I thought of Clem and the effort he put into it. I knew he was exhausted when he finished the truck. There was a sense of relief and of pride. Like me, I think he was pleased that I didn’t just settle for simple block letters in a straight line. I think he charged me $100 per side. Where can you buy an original painting for that price? The experience still brings a smile to my face and is probably the main reason I’ve become so interested in preserving “Clem’s” legacy as a Saratoga sign painter. Jeff DeCanio just upped that legacy ten-fold by contacting me with a simple email request.
The truck is long gone. The memory is not. I will continue my “Clem” Signs searches. I am grateful to Jeff DeCanio for sending me his email and the photographs. I also want to thank Valerie Adinolphi for sharing her photo’s and memories of Clem with me. I know she is as sentimental as I am of Clem’s work and memory. I also want to thank childhood friend Rhea Gordon Demory and Saratoga artist Robert Wheaton, two other Saratoga originals who have provided me with photos and memories of Clem’s work. It’s nice people like this that make up this blog and fuel this writer.
If any of you happens across another “Clem” Sign or story, I would be thrilled to hear from you.
You can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can contact me at: email@example.com
Jeff DeCanio is the General Manager of a bar and restaurant in the West Village in NYC. The bar is aptly named, The “Happiest Hour,” and the restaurant, “Slowly Shirley.” In a later phone conversation when I inquired about the origin of Slowly Shirley, Jeff eluded that the focus of the restaurant was the wide variety of interesting cocktails—the food although as enjoyable and unique, might arrive slowly but surely. With a blog named Raining Iguanas I could relate to the hidden tone. If you're ever in the Big Apple look up Jeff and his establishment and say hello. Tell him a Raining Iguana sent you.