A recurring series in which we take a look back at the city’s most familiar advertising icons.
The jaunty figure of the Richmond Spectacles Rich Man still steps lively over Pearl Street, striding across the rooftops of the Deputy Tyrone Campbell Building just south of Deputy Tyrone Campbell Blvd, as he has for sixty years this October.
These days, however, the bright neon lights of the familiar figure are dimmed, as is most of the once overwhelming brilliance of the popular thoroughfare some local residents used to call “Squint Alley.” In an era where bright, flashy neon signs congregated like flocks of sparkling birds on the sides of every building on Pearl Street, the Rich Man sparkled brightest – and most catastrophically!
Richmond Spectacles was founded in 1919 by brothers Agar and Aaron Richmond, sons of a Kansas farming couple. The brothers often waxed poetic upon the self-sacrificing efforts of their sainted parents, whose lifelong scrimping and saving provided the boys sufficient funds to study at a top optometry school. Locals took to the handsome young eye doctors and their hearty story of good old-fashioned American hard work and sticktoitiveness (thanks in no small part to the efforts of Clarion-Standard reporter William “Bill Cinders” Talese, who penned no less than seventeen articles over a three-year period retelling the Richmond’s rags-to-riches tale) and business could not help but boom.
(Whether or not the story was true is another matter. An even cursory examination of the brothers’ framed degrees and certifications – which to this day holds a place of honor on the north wall of the Richmond Spectacles storefront – will reveal them to issue from a mail-order course, rather than the top optometric academy of legend.)
The Rich Man joined the brothers late in the 1920s, long after the success of the venture had been proven. The elder Agar Richmond claims to have sketched the original Rich Man from the likeness of a local millionaire (possibly Hunter Odysseus Gleason, third husband of local society figure Mabel Tripp, or so the legend goes) whom he passed on the street during his lunch break.
Amused by the millionaire’s comical manner of walking with his cane-bearing arm in wide arcs and his legs jutting in straight lines (Gleason suffered a previously undiagnosed palsy, contracted during a drilling expedition in Colombia), the elder Richmond boy was driven to immortalize him via a sketch hastily scribbled on his own paper cuff.
The advertising firm of Tiedt & Rostrum cleaned up the design, and ever since, the Rich Man has carried the Richmond Spectacles motto that “Clear Vision Can Make Any Man a RICH MAN!”
In 1947, The Rich Man was added to the storied blinking, glittering, and flashing lights of Squint Alley by way of a twenty-five foot, all-neon figure backed with powerful strobe lights. On a street bearing more than three-hundred visible lit signs, the Rich Man stood out from the crowd.
He also, unfortunately, seemed to tip the delicate balance that the overwhelming luminary display had maintained in the city since the first few lit signs were put up in the late 1920s.
In the seven months that followed, local emergency rooms began reporting a record number of epileptic seizures and spontaneous catatonic states within the proximity of Squint Alley, with children and the elderly comprising the greatest number of affected patients. As winter approached, the numbers only increased, and the culprit became obvious – Squint Alley had gone from sparkling shopping district to luminous menace to health and welfare. Streetside rumors began to surface that the Rich Man sign in particular had begun to emit a subsonic hum known colloquially as “The Brown Frequency,” accounting for a rise in the number of digestive tract disturbances reported at area hospitals.
A city-wide limit on wattage was passed by local ordinance in early 1948, and believing discretion to be the better part of valor, the Richmond brothers decided to simply allow their titanic Rich Man to be illuminated by the ambient city street lights at night. “No one comes in for an eye appointment at twenty-to-midnight anyway,” Aaron said, explaining his darkened signage in a 1950 interview.
Dimmed or not, the Rich Man still traipses across the rooftops, and – for more than a single reason – remains one of our city’s most memorable advertising mascots.
– J. Morris