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Letter Perfect

A virtuoso sign painter and the windows in his life.

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Years ago, Vernon Guider painted the south-side storefront of Hank's Rib House. "The best barbecue on earth," read Guider's neat lettering. In the bottom corner of one of the windows he put a little pink pig. "The pig is down on his knees," says Guider. "The pig says, 'Oh Lord, when I die, PLEASE send me to Hank's Rib House where I can be barbecued right.' People used to stop their cars when they saw that. Hank knew how to make barbecue, but when it came to signs, I had to help."

The soft-spoken Guider, 81, has been hand painting signs on the south and west sides since 1945. He's advertised church events, rhythm and blues revues, and political rallies. Now mostly retired, he does occasional work for the University of Illinois at Chicago and a few community groups and churches in his neighborhood. You can still drive by some of Guider's work today, though he'd be disappointed if that's all you did.

"Why would you want to drive by?" Guider asks. "The purpose of the signs are to make you stop and come in. I have a sermon I preach to people: 'Your sign is your customer's first impression of you and your business.' Your sign is supposed to say, 'I'm good-lookin'! Come in and look at me and smile!' And people will come."

"It's like a history trail when you go through the community and spot Vernon's work," says Pastor Charles M. Ford of the Saint Paul Church of God in Christ at 4528 S. Wabash. "It's so distinctive. It is well laid out and to the point. His signs carry a message."

Ford--the son of the late Bishop Louis Henry Ford, the Memphis minister after whom the south-side expressway is named--has commissioned Guider to do banners for his church and for sound trucks that advertise tent revivals. In 1996 Guider's signs were used to lobby for the naming of the Bishop Ford Freeway. "It was critical to our success," Ford says. "By the busload we went to Springfield, following signs made by Vernon."

Guider has made political signs for the NAACP, First Ward alderman Fred Roti, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. He made mayoral campaign signs and banners for Harold Washington. "The first time Harold ran he didn't have any money," Guider says. "He owed me $200. I made the original and carried it over to my friend Gabby."

Gabby--aka Stanley Gapshis--ran the Progress Printing Corporation, an offset plant at 3324 S. Halsted. Progress Printing printed Negro Digest, the precursor to Ebony, from 1942 to 1945. Gabby died eight years ago. Now the store is operated by his son Martin.

"Vernon's work is kind of naive in a 1940s way," says Martin. "It's dated, but it's not dated. He did a lot of union strike posters for us. Even today when I see a strike on the news, the signs seem to have that lettering he knew how to do. It's block lettering, but it's printed real large." Guider still keeps in touch with his former printer: "The other day Vernon brought five gallons of strawberry ice cream for my mom," says Martin. "He does that every few months."

Born on the south side of Memphis, Guider says it was the small blackboards in school that taught him control in lettering. "There were about 10 inches of space all around the blackboard," he explains. "I learned the alphabet on the blackboard."

His mother, Nannie Lomax, was a seamstress. His father, Will Guider, was a brick mason. The family came to Chicago in 1937 and settled in Washington Park, where the teenage Vernon found odd jobs. While working on a foundation dig, he was asked by another laborer to help paint a three-room house near 45th Place and Vincennes.

"He gave me white paint," Guider says. "And I started painting the woodwork in the front room. He had an appointment. He was gone for three hours. When he came back I had painted the front room, the bedroom, and the kitchen. I did all three rooms! When I was finished I asked the lady who owned the house if she would mind if I painted some red roses on the [kitchen] cabinets. She said, 'Go ahead.'...She was impressed. She even called her neighbors upstairs to come down and look at the roses."

The owner of the house introduced him to Frank Phillips, who ran a sign shop in a storefront basement at 4630 S. Parkway (now King Drive). "It was a small shop," Guider says. "His drawing board was about 12 feet long. This was the first time I had seen a professional man paint signs. He made a paper sign about three feet by four feet. It took him about 35 minutes to do that sign. Frank got paid $3.50 for that sign. At that time most boys my age were working as delivery boys for grocery stores. Maybe you'd make $3.50 for a week's work." Guider saw the writing on the wall.

He began working under Phillips's watchful eye. "If I wasn't at school or church, I was at Frank's sign shop. I carried a picture in my wallet of a ship with sails I had painted. Frank looked at it and said, 'That's nice, but if you want to make money, you learn how to letter.' That's the best advice I ever got."

In 1945 Guider went into business with LeRoy Winbush, another Memphis native. Their studio was across the street from Phillips, on the third floor of a building at 47th and Parkway that adjoined the Regal Theatre. "When I was with him, we never had one argument," says Winbush, now a design consultant at the DuSable Musem of African American History. "We've been friends for 56 years." By 1948 Winbush had started what would be a ten-year stint as art director for Ebony, and in 1950 he left to open his own business at 333 N. Michigan.

Meanwhile Guider was befriended by his landlord, Harry Englestein, who owned the building that housed the Regal, the Savoy, and the South Center Department Store on 47th Street. He helped Guider get a contract with the Regal. Soon Guider's signs were promoting Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jay McShann. He teased audiences:

"SCOOP! SCOOP! SCOOP!

"Here's wonderful entertainment coming soon:

"The Herman Herd--Woody Her-man and his Wonderful Orchestra!!!"

It took Guider three hours to make the 20-foot sign promoting a revue starring Sam Cooke and the Drifters and featuring Ernie K-Doe, the Sheppards, Slim Harpo, the Olympics, Carla Thomas, and three more acts. Painted on quarter-inch beaverboard, the sign hung under the Regal marquee.

His early-50s cardboard lobby display for the King Cole Trio was a work of art, accented with a giant crown and a piano keyboard that almost looked three-dimensional. But Guider wasn't a big music fan. "The King Cole Trio?" he asks. "I didn't know much about them except that they played music and stomped their feet."

He also did promotional movie signs for the Regal. An eight-foot-tall, four-foot-wide lobby easel for Pinky, a 1949 Darryl F. Zanuck flick featuring singer and dancer Ethel Waters, bore the legend: "Coming Fri. Jan. 6th--The Story of a Girl Who PASSED for WHITE."

Guider has the long, thick fingers of a laborer, but his heart delivers the short, soft touch. He generally works from a small sketch, transferring the design to cardboard for posters or to muslin for banners. In the basement studio of his South Shore bungalow, he lays the muslin across a 20-foot easel marked into one-foot sections. Three fluorescent lights hang above him. He uses oils or water-based paint for lettering.

He whistles while he works, and he never quite knows when he's finished with a sign. He likes to add an extra touch, whether it's a clever line or extra shading. "You got a nice cake cooked, but maybe you want to put some raisins on top of that cake," he says. "It might taste better."

He inherited his parents' ability to work with their hands. When he didn't have money to buy a receptionist's desk for the old office next to the Regal, "I made [one] out of wood and metal scraps." And he's redecorated the basement den next to his current workspace, complete with a mural he painted of a sunset on a distant beach.

Guider and his wife, Lillian, have lived in this home for 32 years. They met in 1942, while singing in the National Youth Association choir at the 38th and Wabash YMCA. "Vernon was in the bass section," says Lillian. "I was in the soprano section. I really wasn't attracted to him at first. He asked one of our mutual friends to introduce us." Since then they've raised three successful sons: Melvin, principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Houston; Wayman, a pharmaceutical rep in Los Angeles; and Vincent, a youth minister in New Orleans.

Out of all his signs, Guider's favorite is the metal one outside Christ Unity Evangelical House of Prayer at 208 E. 61st. He also did the sign in front of the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip. In the early 1960s his wife's grandfather was buried there. "When I went to the cemetery, they had a sign that looked like something you would make," he tells a visitor. "So I did a new permanent sign. I got $360 for that sign. Back then, it was a whole lot of money."

But perhaps his largest still-standing creation is the sign that covers the side of Queen of the Sea, the 45-year-old soul food institution on 47th Street. His understated wit hooked Mary Anderson, the now deceased original owner, who didn't even know what she wanted to call her restaurant when she hired Guider to make the sign. "'Mary's' didn't say anything," he says. "'Anderson's' didn't say anything. I asked, 'You're going to specialize in seafood? Why don't you call it 'Queen of the Sea?' She loved it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

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