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Merita, curvy roadside icon, finds home at Morse Museum

Erik Sine

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Merita, curvy roadside icon, finds home at Morse Museum

hen news broke in late 2012 that Orlando's venerable Merita Bread Bakery would close, reaction ranged from concern for workers losing their jobs to questions about the fate of the huge Merita sign overlooking Interstate 4 — a Central Florida icon since the 1960s.

Seen from I-4 near the Kaley exit, the large, curvy red letters spelling "Merita" were long accompanied by the homey smell of baking bread, and by a clock that supplied drivers with the time and temperature, too.

It was the perhaps the largest surviving sign designed by the Bob Galler, a true artist of neon who died this past August at 84.

It's fitting that, like some of Galler's other creations, the Merita sign will soon reside in the collections of the Charles Hosmer Museum of American Art in Winter Park. If all goes as planned, the sign will be relocated this month to the Morse warehouse, where it will join Galler signs for Ronnie's and Gary's Duck Inn restaurants.

Artist of our landscape

When Galler retired in late 2006 as design vice president of Orlando's Graphic Systems Inc., he signed off on more than a half-century of shaping Central Florida's visual landscape.

By the way, when he designed the Merita sign in the 1960s, it bore a round tick-tock clock at the top, instead of the digital display added later.

In addition to his work for Ronnie's and Gary's, Galler's credits include well-known signs for McNamara Pontiac, Church Street Market, NASCAR and Walt Disney World. He devised the 1980s version of Orlando's downtown Christmas star that's still in use as the center of the current decoration.

The McKean legacy

Galler was great fun to talk with about his work because he genuinely loved it, a trait he shared with the late Hugh McKean, who became interested in commercial signs while director of the Morse — a museum most closely identified with the elegant stained-glass creations of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

McKean's last sign acquisition before his death in 1995 was the neon banner that hung above Ronnie's in Orlando until the restaurant closed that same year.

In 1990, when McKean saved the large neon sign for Orlando's Orange Court Motor Lodge, he told the Sentinel he'd been acquiring signs since the mid-1970s. Most were modest emblems for Winter Park stores, such as the red wooden sign from Cottrell's, Park Avenue's lost and lamented five-and-dime.

The Orange Court sign, glowing with coral, green, and orange neon and 115 blinking incandescent bulbs, was McKean's first sign acquisition beyond Winter Park.

Signs of community

After McKean's death, the Morse continued to make a home for neon icons that otherwise would probably have been destroyed. In 2001, its collection added the sign for Gary's Duck Inn, the Orange Blossom Trail eatery that served locals and visitors for almost 50 years.

"It's part of who we are as a community," museum spokeswoman Catherine Hinman said of the Gary's sign. "We're happy to give it a safe home."

Providing that home is no small undertaking. Not only are signs such as Merita immense, but they also require restoration that's hard to come by these days. Technicians and materials are scarce.

Still, a future display of the signs remains a "continuing hope as we think of the future of the museum," Director Laurence J. Ruggiero has said.

When McKean, himself an artist and a former Rollins College president, began acquiring signs, he acknowledged that some art collectors might not understand the appeal.

"When we collected our Tiffany, they didn't accept it either, McKean said in 1990, referring to how unfashionable Tiffany glass was to the art world when he and his wife, Jeannette Genius McKean, began building their collection.

"We do what we think an American museum should do," McKean said of the Morse.

As for the sign collection, "We think this is lively. It isn't self-conscious. It comes right out of society, right out of our people."

You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life. - Winston Churchill

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