Signing Off

The Merita Bread sign along Interstate 4 is down but not out.

Q: What has become of the old Merita Bread sign along Interstate 4?

A: By the time you read this, the venerable landmark, which has stood along Interstate 4 near Kaley Avenue for more than a half century, will have likely disappeared. Sad news, indeed, but this story has a silver—or should we say neon—lining. The sign is in the safekeeping of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which has restored dozens of vintage Orlando-area signs and preserved them in a huge warehouse.

 The fate of the Merita Bread sign had been unclear since November 2012 when Hostess Brands, which owned the bakery where the old icon was located, shut down. By then, the lights had pretty much gone out—when a tube burned out, it generally was not replaced.

Then, less than two months ago, Maudlin International Trucks bought the property with plans to build a huge dealership. A Maudlin representative contacted the city about whether it might want the sign and was referred to the Morse, given its reputation for preserving such landmarks. Maudlin offered the Merita sign as a gift, and the museum jumped at the chance. The sign was scheduled to be taken down in mid-November.

Actually there are two Merita signs—one facing in either direction—and they are whoppers. Each measures 18 feet high by 30 feet wide, rivaling in size the Ronnie’s restaurant sign that’s in the Winter Park museum’s collection, says Catherine Hinman, Morse’s director of public affairs. Experts at the museum will evaluate the Merita sign and work to restore it. If all goes well, it will join an array of revitalized vintage signs that when lit, are truly sights to behold—bright gems that once advertised legendary locations like the Orange Court Motor Lodge, Club Juana and McNamara Pontiac. They are all there because the late Hugh McKean, who founded the Morse with wife Jeannette to showcase the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany, decided decades ago that signs were art worth saving. Morse Director Laurence Ruggerio and his restoration staff have carried on the spirit of preservation.

And whom do we have to thank for creating much of this unparalleled artwork? That would be sign designer Bob Galler, who crafted the Merita icon, as well as the signs for Ronnie’s, McNamara Pontiac, Gary’s Duck Inn, City of Cars, and many more. He did so many during his career that, as he told this magazine in 2010, he didn’t always recognize his creations immediately.

“Even today, when I ride around,’’ Galler said, “I pass signs I did and say, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, I remember doing that.’

“It makes you feel good that they’ve got so much of your stuff out there. But it makes you feel sad when you see it come down.’’

Bob Galler, the granddaddy of Orlando sign design, died in August at the age of 84. Like many of his other creations, the Merita sign did come down. And, like many of them, its name eventually will be in lights again.

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