You've probably noticed Bakersfield's roadside “welcome” signs along Highway 99: Beige, ground-level concrete blocks, each adorned with a single whimsical green leaf. Not unattractive, and certainly better than the municipal signage that preceded them: rectangular gray slabs with all the personality of a pair of warehouse doors.
They’re improvements, but they’re still not all that distinctive. At least not compared to the greatest municipal “welcome” signs in the history of municipal “welcome” signs.
Ah, for the days of the old "Sun, Fun, Stay, Play" signs that stood at the north and south ends of the city for 17 years. The first one was unveiled exactly 50 years ago this past week.
Playful and cartoonish, the Jurassic twins featured greeting-card poetry so simple and memorable the signs actually developed a cult following. Even for freeway travelers who never once set foot in Bakersfield, there was something comforting about their candy-store visage.
But the signs came to be regarded as truck-stop tacky, and in 1983 they came down for good. But decades later, many people still remember them fondly. And inevitably, some will ask the question: Whatever became of those signs?
The great city-sign savior himself, country musician Buck Owens, once asked that question, too. He actually got an answer. Part of one, at least.
It was 1999, and Owens had just unveiled a re-creation of Bakersfield's new/old city landmark, the blue-on-gold "Bakersfield" footbridge that once spanned Union Avenue. The new version, a near-clone, stands near the intersection of Sillect Avenue and Buck Owens Boulevard outside the late singer's Crystal Palace dinner club.
Once that project was finished, Owens had his people call Dale Mills, the retired director of the Kern County Department of Public Works, to ask about the "Sun, Fun, Stay, Play" signs. Mills was in on the conception, development and demise of those memorable signs, but he wasn't sure what had become of them after they were uprooted and hauled away. Turns out nobody knew for certain, not even the man who'd purchased them years before.
The two “Sun, Fun, Stay, Play” signs were at opposite ends of the city, one several miles south of town at Herring Road and another north of town at Snow Road.
They were behemoth, identical structures —49 feet tall and 60 feet wide, with balloonish, aspirin-shaped mini-signs for each of the four key words and a huge, rectangular marquee below that advertised local events of interest: —rodeos, roller skating competitions, harvest festivals and all of the other activities that medium-sized valley towns hosted in the late 1960s and '70s.
Highway 99 once brought travelers right through the heart of Bakersfield, but after the new freeway was completed in 1964, highway traffic never came close enough to be tempted by the motels and restaurants along Union Avenue.
A confederation of Union Avenue businesses, worried they'd all wither away and die, decided that a matching pair of colorful signs on the freeway might entice travelers to stop and at least use our bathrooms.
In 1965, the owners of 252 business parcels along Union Avenue, between White Lane and Bernard Street, formed a service area with everybody chipping into a communal kitty. They hired the Heath Co. of Los Angeles to design and build the first sign on the south side of the city for $27,000 — and, later, a second sign for the same price. The steering committee kicked around several ideas.
At one point the signs would say “Keep to the Right for / Bakersfield, Playground of the Valley.” Then, at some point in mid-1965, Heath's designers came up with the idea for the “balloon” signs. But instead of "Sun, Fun, Stay, Play," the four words would be the distinctly unpoetic “Eat, Rest, Gas, Play.”
Perhaps seeing the inevitable consequences of having a huge sign featuring “eat” and “gas” in the same message, the sign committee revised the slogan to “Eat, Rest, Swim, Play.”
Things appeared to be moving in that direction until the county's vigilant legal staff advised the sign committee that such wording was a potential violation of laws that barred government entities from promoting private enterprise.
“Eat,” for example, could be seen as promoting Bakersfield’s restaurants, and “rest” suggested that motorists should stop at one of the city’s fine hotels. No word on whether county counsel was also grimacing inwardly at the clunkiness of the proposed prose.
The identity of the visionary who first blurted out the words “Sun, Fun, Stay, Play” is lost to history; God help us if it was an attorney. In any event, the slogan was approved and work commenced on the first of the two signs in late 1965.
That first sign, with eight-foot tall letters in the “balloons” and red, removable, 2-foot-tall letters on the marquee, was unveiled in March 1966. At the dedication ceremony, Kern County Supervisor David Fairbairn, a member of the sign committee, claimed that Bakersfield had achieved a first: Never before had businesses come together to voluntarily tax themselves for such a purpose —— not in California and, as far as he knew, not anywhere in the country.
The second sign went up in 1968.
The signs became famous, sort of. Travelers became accustomed to the familiar greeting, and some of them presumably stayed and even played. But the businesses that comprised the backbone of the service area gradually closed, moved or lost interest.
In January 1978, a major windstorm blew through the city and damaged the signs, destroying 45 letters. Extensive repairs were undertaken in 1981, and it became clear that the two signs would eventually need a lot more work.
By 1982, Mills said, “It got to the point where people didn’t want to pay for them anymore.” People were also growing tired of the seemingly daily outrages perpetrated by pranksters who creatively (and not-so-creatively) rearranged the marquees’ letters to suit their own juvenile purposes.
Steve Gabbitas, one of the then-students hired to change the message on the signs’ marquees every two weeks, admitted in a 1999 interview that the thought occurred to him as well.
“We were tempted to make our own messages, too,” Gabbitas said. “After we put up the message we were supposed to put up, we were supposed to take a Polaroid to prove we’d done it right.”
“We always thought we could get away with changing the message after we took the photo —— ’Hey, it wasn't like that when we left’ — but we never did. We were high school kids. Why would you trust high school kids, anyway?”
In 1982, the county polled the owners of the 252 business parcels in the “Sun, Fun, Stay, Play” assessment area about their interest in repairing and continuing to maintain the signs. Of the 112 who responded, only two owners wanted to keep (and pay for) the signs.
No wonder: In the 1978-79 fiscal year, maintenance of the signs cost them each $54 a year, but by 1982-83 it was running nearly three times that amount. The county didn’t want to pay for the signs and neither did the county Board of Trade, the Superintendent of Schools office, the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce or the City of Bakersfield.
The signs were “hokey” landmarks that “paint a truckstop image” of Bakersfield, City Councilman Don Ratty said at the time, and most everyone agreed with him. Most everyone in Bakersfield, anyway.
It took a Los Angeles woman to organize a statewide “Save Our Bakersfield Signs” preservation committee.
“I happen to like these signs a lot and I don't think people in Bakersfield have really thought about this,” L.A. attorney Jerry Simmons wrote in a 1983 letter. She praised the signs as “so colorful.”
Unswayed, the Kern County Board of Supervisors authorized a sealed-bid sale of the signs, and in March 1983 Airport Bus of Bakersfield won out over five bidding rivals, including Jim Burke of Jim Burke Ford.
Ken Jones, the president of Airport Bus at the time, said he got both signs for a mere $1,500 with the proviso that he remove them at his own expense. Nostalgia was not the primary consideration for Jones’ purchase: Airport Bus would be using the signs to promote its service to and from Los Angeles International Airport (in ways Jones had not yet clearly identified).
Jones hired a Fresno-area crane company to remove the signs. He stored one sign in the yard of one of his businesses, Coastal Engineering, which then occupied the corner of Rosedale Highway and Mohawk Street, and the other in the yard of the Fresno crane operator. He then set himself to the task of obtaining permits to put the signs back into the ground somewhere along the freeway.
Jones was still attempting to get that authorization, he said, when “a pretty good storm” blew through Bakersfield and slammed his sign to the ground with tornado-like fury. It was a total loss: Jones’ insurance paid off and the sign was scrapped.
Meanwhile, Jones still owed money to the Fresno company that had removed the signs. He couldn't pay and, exasperated by the whole thing, offered the sign in lieu of cash. The company accepted.
Whatever became of that sign? Jones, interviewed in 1999, said he didn’t know. He couldn’t recall the name of the company that took possession of it, and he said his records from those years are long gone.
Perhaps the remaining “Sun, Fun, Stay, Play” sign was scrapped and sent to a landfill. Perhaps it was partially recycled and turned into a new billboard. Perhaps it's rusting, intact, in a junkyard somewhere near Firebaugh.
Nobody said much about the signs for the next two decades, at least not to Jones. In the meantime, Jones and his partners sold Airport Bus, and Coastal Engineering went out of business. Later Jones ran Coastal Netting, which made the huge metal poles (but not the actual netting) used for the fencing around golf driving ranges.
Jones didn’t wax nostalgic about his “Sun, Fun, Stay, Play” signs. “Maybe ol' Buck can just make his own sign,” he said in 1999.
Owens, who built his own “Bakersfield” footbridge from scratch, salvaging only the 11 blue porcelain letters, proved that you don’t need original brick and mortar to evoke memories. Maybe they don't make 'em like they used to, but they can sure make 'em look like they used to.
Alas, Buck died in 2006 without having acted on the impulse, and today those “Sun, Fun, Stay, Play” signs are relegated to fond memory.
This story is based on a version published in The Bakersfield Californian on Sept. 19, 1999.