Part One “Good Signs on Broadway Soon Junked” November, 1946 by Saul Pett
Outside they were carving up 30 feet of Jane Russell and loading it into a truck. Inside, grey-haired, practical minded Jacob Starr observed, “In my business, you can’t be sentimental. When we’re through with ’em, we just throw ’em away.”
Starr’s business is signs. He is secretary of the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp., which claims to be the birthplace and graveyard for 90 percent of the spectacular outdoor display signs blinking on Broadway –the ones that make the tourists stare.
Jacob Starr with a semi-demolished billboard sign of Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, 1946
Elsewhere in the firm’s plant at 57th Street, facing the Hudson river, were the grotesque remains of a 140 foot picture of Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, a yard wide head of Paul Whiteman, man-sized letters and other ghosts of the White Way’s synthetic glamour, all awaiting the scrap heap.
If you’ve got the room, here’s the place to get huge pictures of your favorite movie star for nothing. As Starr explained, it costs more to remake an old sign than to build a new one. About all that’s saved is some wiring, sockets and other metal.
“Gone With The Wind” New York premiere, December 1939
Starr’s firm designs, manufactures, operates, sells and rents signs that idea men think up. Rentals range from $5,000 to $15,000 per month.
The company’s biggest project is 75 by 250 feet, with one letter 40 feet high.
The most complex and most expensive sign in the Strauss stable hangs over the Palace Theatre on Broadway. It’s worth a quarter of a million, uses 27,000 bulbs in four colors and can be changed completely every 20 seconds. The light bill for this averages about $500 per month.
The company’s biggest new project destined for Broadway is a girl made out of plexiglass. She will stand four stories high and display a leg two and a half stories long. The lady will advertise slips.
The genius and force behind Artkraft was Jacob Starr, known by all who did business with him simply as Jake. Jake started out as an ironworker in the Ukraine, but his talents exceeded banging hot metal. He built some of the first electric signs in his native country, and after immigrating to the United States, in 1902, he developed the first electric automobile starter, which he sold to Pierce Arrow for $500 — a business giveaway he would not soon repeat.
In New York City, Jake landed work for a small sign company on the Lower East Side. At night he went to school, earning a degree in engineering. He saw the advantages of adapting assembly-line techniques to the sign-making trade while preserving the craft component of the business. He also understood the value in adapting new technologies to signs. One such technology was neon lighting, invented in France, and Starr acquired the North American rights to it. By 1930 Jake had risen to control his own sign company. His fortunes soared in tandem with those of the burgeoning industries of motion pictures and advertising.
To many, Jake was a quick-tempered tyrant, far tougher on his family than on his other workers. His nephew Philip Marshall, who has worked off and on for the company since 1954, recalls Jake as “a self-made man of the school that the only way to succeed is if things are not made easy for you; he went out of his way not to make things easy — particularly for his relatives.”
Jake’s toughness toward his family was the flip side of the affection he showed his workers. A bare-knuckled manager and driven businessman, Jake nonetheless helped found the sheet-metal union local at Artkraft. “He felt very strongly about people who put themselves out for him,” says Marshall. “Since we were so involved with the theater business, deadlines were extremely important. Many times, to meet a deadline, guys would work around the clock. It was not unheard of for them to work until 12:00 or 1:00 in the morning, then crawl up on the workbench and sleep a couple of hours before waking up and going back to work.”
Jacob Starr died in 1976.
“Fire Over England” Billboard sign in Times Square, New York City