Bear Essentials

Q: What’s the story behind the two tile mosaics of bears on the building at North Mills Avenue and Canton Street?

A: The mosaics have been there for nearly 50 years—they just haven’t always been visible, often covered with signs advertising whatever business occupies the space. But those bears have quite a history.

The building is the former location of Bill Baer’s TV and stereo store. “Mr. Color TV,’’ as Baer was known for decades, had four stores in Orlando. Bears were his shtick: The main store, on Mills, featured a 12-foot-high neon bear that waved a baton, and Baer had giant stuffed bears in each of his stores. His corny commercials were a fixture on Orlando TV in the 1960s and ’70s.

“He was just one of those local yokels who was a master marketer,’’ recalls daughter Bev Swanson of Tallahassee, who worked in her dad’s stores while growing up in Orlando. In 1965, Baer hired a mosaic artist (whose identity remains a mystery) to create the artworks that adorn the building. One shows a black bear with two cubs in tow, while the other depicts a trio of polar bears.

Baer told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991 that he commissioned that specific lineup of bears to send a message about race relations. “We wanted to let people know that we didn’t show prejudice against anyone—white or black,’’ said Baer, who died in 2002 at the age of 86. ‘’I don’t care what race or religion you are. It’s all the same to me.’’

Mr. Color TV sold his business in 1979. (One of his stuffed bears, Baerthoven, is on display at the Orange County Regional History Center.) Abney’s Music Center moved in a few years later, and its signs covered the mosaics. Since Abney’s closed in 2003, several businesses have occupied the spot, and the current tenant is Bill Bennett Boot Camps, which has left the mosaics uncovered.

However, the bears are about to go back into hibernation. Graffiti artists are leaving their marks on the tiles, and Bennett, owner of the fitness/training center, is tired of constantly cleaning off their work. So he plans to cover the artwork with business signs of his own. Answer Man hates to see a piece of history go into hiding—but in this case, Bennett’s move might actually preserve it.

Roberto Gonzalez

Q: Why does an intersection warning sign on northbound Edgewater Drive look like a wiener dog?

A: It’s a ready-made Rorschach test for drivers in College Park: Some see only a sign indicating two curves ahead with a couple of streets—Lake Adair Boulevard and Lakeview Street—branching off in either direction. Others see the likeness of a dachshund-like pooch standing on its hind legs. Granted he has an arrow for a head but, hey, Footstool Dog in Beauty and the Beast had issues, too.

Officials with Orlando’s transportation engineering division say the city’s sign shop made the image, that it simply reflects the unusual stretch of road, that the designers weren’t trying to be funny, and that they have never heard of a warning sign being compared to a dog. Which can only mean one thing: Answer Man, who was solidly in the wiener dog camp, is way overdue for his annual personality test.

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