Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Vodie's bear, and Saturday doin's

Vodie's bear, Santa Ana, hours before moving to his new home at MONA.

Here's a run-down of some local history-related events happening this Saturday, Oct. 25:
  • The Los Angeles Archives Bazaar (which also includes Orange County) will be held at the beautiful Doheny Library at USC. This is a great place to learn about many, many historical archives, collections and libraries you never knew existed. If you have an interest in researching or writing Southern California history, you need to go.  
  • The Santa Ana Historic Preservation Society will hold their 17th Annual Historical Cemetery Tour. This year's theme is, "A Hot Time in Old Orange County Tonight; Santa Ana’s Firefighting History.” This is a popular event, and cemeteries are always an interesting "prop" for discussing the people who founded and built a community.
  • The Anaheim Halloween Parade -- which isn't about history, but which is certainly a historic Orange County tradition in its own right -- will once again ply the streets of Downtown Anaheim.
Between a busy summer, taking on some other writing duties, and being beset by endless computer problems (now finally resolved), this old blog has mostly been on hiatus. I'm going to start back by catching up on a few things I wanted to write about earlier. This is one of those stories,...
Happy Bear watched over 17th and Bristol.
In June, my fellow OCHS board member, Josh "Mr. Garden Grove" McIntosh, saw that the old Vodie's Alignment & Brakes on 17th St. in Santa Ana was being bulldozed. Within hours, he'd managed to halt the demolition of the iconic "Happy Bear"sign and promptly found a  new home for it at the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale! I love a preservation story with a happy end!

The story of the Happy Bear sign begins with brothers Will and Henry Damman, who invented an electric starter for the Model T in the 1910s. Although Henry Ford came up with his own version and ended their venture, the Dammans turned around and started the Bear Manufacturing Company, which built auto repair equipment. According to the Rock Island Preservation Society, "Bear equipment became the standard for diagnosis and repair of wheel, steering, and frame alignment.  Later, the company expanded [into] auto safety equipment of all types."

Beginning in the 1920s, Happy Bear's image appeared at innumerable mom-and-pop auto shops that used alignment equipment built by Bear Manufacturing. I'm told Bear Manufacturing would sometimes install a free bear sign for their customers at the same time they installed the alignment equipment in their shop and trained the staff on how to use it.

Happy Bear signs of different sizes were made, but Vodie's was one of the largest and -- at this late date -- among the best-preserved. Vodie's Alignment & Brakes was founded by Vodie Edgar Clemmons (1914-1997) of Garden Grove.

Happy Bear signs started disappearing from the American landscape in the 1960s and '70s. Bear Manufacturing became part of Automotive Diagnostics, and the brand faded away.

In 1973, the Grateful Dead used slight variations of the bear's likeness on the cover of their album "History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One." Soon, the bears were a symbol of the band, appearing on shirts, decals, etc. Deadhead lore says the bear was printed on blotter acid produced by soundman and "underground chemist" Owsley "Bear" Stanley before it appeared on the album cover. Deadhead lore also claims the bear was an old piece of clip-art that pre-dated even its use by Bear Manufacturing. (If anyone sees a pre-1920s use of the bear, let me know.)

Anyway, Santa Ana's Happy Bear, being an especially good example of Bear Manufacturing signage, was something MONA seemed very pleased to receive. Plans are being made to restore it and get the neon elements working again. 

Another Happy Bear sign (at another Vodie's) still stands at 9891 Garden Grove Blvd. in Garden Grove.


TokyoMagic! said...

It's nice to finally know the history on these.....thank you! I remember there being many more of these around when I was younger. The one on Garden Grove Blvd. always makes me smile when I drive past it. I just drove by one of the smaller versions of the sign last week and now I can't remember where it was. I want to say it was on South St. or Lakewood Blvd. in the city of Lakewood.

Unknown said...

I used to drive by one in Gardena (near Crenshaw & 132nd) on the way home a few years ago. Bing maps and Google street view still show it there.

Connie Moreno said...

I remember those bears!!!! Love to read all the cool stuff you share with us.