By Christopher Gray
Jan. 30, 2000
WITH the death in December of the 92-year-old sign king Douglas Leigh, the 54-year-old George Stonbely is now the grand younger man of Times Square spectaculars. Mr. Stonbely has put up a new generation of striking signs in Times Square, but like Mr. Leigh -- who was best known for his wafting Camel smoke rings -- he is always working on bigger dreams.
Mr. Stonbely grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but remembers coming in to see Times Square, especially Mr. Leigh's animated sign for Bulova, which featured a clock and moving silhouettes of dancers. He studied psychology at New York University, worked for Senator Robert F. Kennedy and later opened an advertising agency, but in 1976 became convinced that the Times Square advertising environment was right for something new. He established Spectacolor to market a new system, an electronic signboard with moving images and text.
''We had the idea of creating a broadcast medium on a sign,'' he said.
The first Spectacolor display, used by many advertisers, was a programmable animated electronic sign. It went up on the north end of the old Times Tower structure, at 42nd and Broadway, in 1976.
A video sign, Astrovision, put up by another company, now occupies the same site. Mr. Stonbely began marketing his system worldwide because in those days, he said, the sign environment in Times Square was gloomy.
''Nobody wanted a sign in Times Square,'' he said. ''The renaissance we see today was then only struggling. The original Marriott Marquis Hotel had only a single sign,'' and for advertisers the pre-Disney Times Square was a hard sell.
Like the late Mr. Leigh but unlike many other big sign companies, Spectacolor does not construct its own signs, and it concentrates on spectaculars, three-dimensional displays that rise above the usual flat vinyl billboard to cause people to stop and stare. Of these, Mr. Leigh's famous Camel sign, put up in 1941 in Times Square, remains the most famous.
Five years ago, with 42nd Street beginning to change, Spectacolor decided to concentrate again on New York, specifically Times Square. ''This is sign heaven -- 95 percent of our work is here,'' Mr. Stonbely said. Of 100 possible sites for spectaculars in the Times Square area, Spectacolor controls 30, he said, and the firm is generally known for its concentration on such displays, like the Maxwell House coffee, AT&T and Kodak signs on the Marriott Marquis.
HIS most striking signs on display now include a tipping can of peanuts for Planters on the south side of the Marriott and his Fleet Bank ATM -- with its huge $20 bill -- on the north side. And above the ATM, Spectacolor's giant Con Ed switch moves each day to the ''on'' position at the same time the lights go on for the Fleet Bank and other signs.
Spectacolor also did the rooftop Chock Full o' Nuts coffee advertisement north of 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, with the checkerboard paint job and the building's water tank painted to emulate a coffee can.
At Broadway and 51st Street, his long billboard for Hachette Filipacchi Magazines -- with more than 100 feet of the company's magazine covers -- is ''awesome, but not quite a spectacular,'' he said. He defines a spectacular as having three elements: an effect big enough to grab people's attention; heraldry (a clear identification of the advertiser's name); and what he calls ''the workhorse'' (a message center or video, something that conveys a complex array of information).
Mr. Stonbely's newest sign, the JVC globe at the northeast corner of 43rd Street and Broadway, is crowded between the giant Nasdaq electronic rolling billboard on the south and the ABC display to the north, but it still gets people to stop and stare. A brightly colored globe leaps off the corner, framed (at night) by a galactic background of stars, and a message board pops out JVC ads.
He said he likes the globe form. ''We decided we couldn't compete with the electronics of Nasdaq and ABC, so we went for something three-dimensional, elemental,'' he said. Context matters, even for spectaculars.
HE is a connoisseur of such displays, and praises without hesitation signs other than his. He likes the retro-fashioned clock on the Renaissance New York Hotel at 47th and Seventh. It's ''very functional,'' he said, and ''it has a great throw'' -- meaning it is visible for quite a distance south.
He admires the texture of the ABC display, directly across from his office in the Paramount Building. The ABC text, rolling across multiple wavy ribbons, and its pictures are ''beautifully integrated,'' he said.
Mr. Stonbely works in a different environment now from that of the spectaculars of the 1920's and 1930's. ''Then, the revenue was pin money -- maybe a few thousand a month,'' he said. ''But now it's in the millions, and it's a measured value you can predict. Developers are basing their financing on sign income.''
He is part of a team that is competing to create the signs for the new Reuters Building, at the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue. He won't say what his group has in mind, but you can see the wheels spinning: ''Reuters, they've got so much -- data,'' he said. ''The challenge is to show that data simply, so you instantly know what it is.''
Like others in the business, Mr. Stonbely is enthusiastic about technological advances and sees no retreat to a time of simpler spectaculars like the Camel sign. The idea he is working on now involves ''an assembly line, a product actually being made, robotically, up on a building -- a car, or a computer,'' he said. ''Now that would stop people in their tracks.''