Neon, vintage, restored and replaced!
A drive-in named for a 1940s-1950s Sooner football formation!
Oklahoma City businesses always have been creative with on-site marketing and advertising. But some business signs stand out — literally, and fondly, in our memory — especially those that say “OKC” so distinctly.
Here are some are some that stand that tall. What are your favorites?
Looking for an increasingly rare drive-in movie? “Just look for the neon cowboy” at 6930 S Western Ave.
It’s a neon icon, at the Winchester Drive-In, Oklahoma City’s only outdoor cinema.
“It was July 3, 1968, when the first car pulled up to the Winchester Drive-In movie ticket booth for the premiere show. Since then, the Winchester Drive-In is a tradition for many families and a landmark in Oklahoma City,” the Winchester says online.
It survived a close call in 2013 when tornadoes pummeled the area, including the theater, which sustained damage. But the big waving cowboy still stood tall after the storm passed.
U-Haul Moving & Storage of Bricktown
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a dadgum U-Haul truck!
It’s been up there, on top of the six-story U-Haul Moving & Storage of Bricktown building at 200 SE 2, for so long, longtime locals probably think of it as Bricktown furniture. Newcomers to OKC might do a double-take — unless they’ve seen another U-Haul truck on top of another U-Haul location somewhere.
Rotating rooftop U-Haul trucks used to be a thing. A fun marketing ploy. The one at Bricktown has been up there since the 1970s, when the franchise opened. How many remain aloft across the country couldn’t be determined. The building itself has an interesting history as one of U-Haul’s adaptive reuse projects to conserve resources.
In years past, the flying truck here has been the lookout for Santa Claus on numerous Christmas Eves. A radio DJ once spent days up there raising money for abused children.
Does OKC’s still rotate?
“Sadly, no,” said new general manager Christen Peery. “It does when it’s windy.”
Split-T Sonic Drive-In
The Split-T, a 1950s teen hangout and burger joint, is long gone, but its legacy lives on at 5701 N Western Ave. at the Split-T Sonic Drive-In, with a football-shape topper and “Split-T” on its marquee sign.
A football because the original Split T was named for a football formation made famous in the 1940s and ’50s by University of Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson.
The Split-T legacy also includes the Theta, a hickory sauced burger, an Oklahoma City specialty that you can find tucked among the options at burger joints around here to this day. Split-T Hickory Sauce is also available by the bottle.
Sunshine Laundry & Cleaners/Stonecloud Brewing Co.
The Sunshine sign at Stonecloud Brewing Co., 1012 NW 1, is a survivor, restored to its former neon glory.
The laundry was built in 1929 and closed in the mid-1980s, and it sat, and atrophied, until the dilapidated warehouse was transformed into a brewery in 2016. Most of the roof was gone, windows were broken and boarded up, and the original sign was shot.
“It hadn’t run for decades,” one of the redevelopers, David Wanzer, said just after it was restored. “The parts were all rusted out. The neon was all busted. It had only some of the internal workings left.”
The remnants guided repairs, including restoration of the animated starburst on the neon sun topping the lettering.
Cock O’ the Walk Bar & Grill
The Cock O’ the Walk Bar & Grill, a longtime favorite neighborhood bar at 3705 N Western Ave., has another resurrected neon sign, this one replicated, not restored.
The watering hole dates to 1960 and has changed hands several times. The rooster didn’t make it. An exact reproduction of the flashy critter went up in 2011 and has welcomed patrons to NW 36 and Western ever since.
Cattlemen’s Cafe/Cattlemen’s Steakhouse
The “Cattlemen’s Cafe” sign is vintage, but it’s a misnomer, at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, 1309 S Agnew Ave. The restaurant hasn’t officially been called “cafe” since owner Dick Stubbs took it over under a lease in 1990, buying it in 1998, said David Egan, director of operations.
The Cattlemen’s is known for innovation while maintaining tradition. Stubbs was looking to start a new steakhouse in the wake of the 1980s oil bust, which took out a bunch of them. By 1990, it seemed possible, but with an old cafe? Egan said Stubbs tightened up the cafe’s menus, going heavy on steak and adding “Steakhouse” to the name.
The Cattlemen’s story is a doozy, dating to 1910. It changed hands with a roll of the dice in 1945. It survived the oil bust. It survived COVID-19.
“Gene Autry, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan (before he was President), and more recently, Reba McEntire. In the early ’90s, George Bush (the elder, while he was president) stopped in for a good meal and a stiff drink,” it says online.
Egan said no one would even think of taking down that vintage, 1940s neon “Cattlemen’s Cafe” sign over a little thing like a restaurant name change. Cafe? Steakhouse? It’s all good.
Coney Island, 428 W Main St. downtown, dates to the 1920s. Bill and Mary Mihas bought it in 1967, and opened Coney Island No. 2, at 240 SW 25, in Capitol Hill, in 1971.
That’s 55 years of ownership, but nearly a century of “hot wieners,” according to vintage signage at both locations that often evokes smiles, especially, maybe, for fifth-grade boys and the young and mischievous at heart.
The Coneys Island tale is just one from among Oklahoma City’s storied hot dog joints, but the “hot wiener” signs sing.
Rush Truck Center
Directions to Rush Truck Center. Go west on Interstate 40 from downtown Oklahoma City and keep an eye out — and up, way up — for the big red oval Peterbilt logo, in cursive, and the Peterbilt truck in the sky.
The skyward Peterbilt 389 has been perched on its pole since the heavy-duty truck dealership was built in 2009. It’s a shell, of course, of a 2002 model — no big Cummins diesel engine or other innards.
Rusk Truck Centers, based in New Braunfels, Texas, has 130-plus locations across the country, and most used to have signage with a hoisted tractor-trailer rig on a pole, said Ryan Baker, general manager in Oklahoma City.
Rush started out as a Peterbilt-only dealership, but added brands over the years. The dealership here is one of the few locations still with a Peterbilt on a pole, he said.
“People talk about it,” he said, “usually when giving directions.”
Yes, he acknowledged, it’s a wonder it’s never been knocked down or even damaged, considering OKC’s regular windy, stormy weather.
Exchange Rexall Drugs/Exchange Pharmacy
Cowboys and drugstore cowboys alike — especially any dubbed as “Rexall Rangers” — should feel at ease at Exchange Pharmacy, 2300 Exchange Ave, in Stockyards City. The drugstore has a great, vintage sign spittin’ distance from the Oklahoma National Stockyards, famously billed as “The World’s Largest Stocker and Feeder Cattle Market.”
“Rexall Drugs” signs used to be all over the place, thousands of them. It’s the “Exchange” on this one that makes it an Oklahoma City sign.
The Rexall chain is long gone. As someone observed in an online forum, “It stands as a monument to the days gone by.”
Store owner Jim Rhymer said he wasn’t sure the “Exchange Rexall Drugs” sign goes all the way back to 1911, when the small shopping center was built — a year after the stockyards came in — but maybe so. Rexall’s roots in Boston (“get a rope!”) go back to 1903.
The sign no longer lights up, but it’s so vintage it’s perfect for the corner of Agnew and Exchange.
“It’s just part of the neighborhood here,” Rhymer said. “If I took it down, what would I do with it? Sell it?”
Milk Bottle Grocery/Braum’s
Milk Bottle Grocery, a tiny three-sided red-brick building at 2426 N Classen Blvd. is a Route 66 icon, dating to 1930, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
What about that funky bottle?
“The towering milk bottle perched on the store’s flat roof confirms that the Milk Bottle Grocery is a Mother Road must see,” the National Park Service says. “Built of sheet metal around 1948, the eye catching milk bottle was, and still is, a funky advertising gimmick for the dairy industry.
“The building’s tight spatial restrictions — hemmed in on all sides by roadway — no doubt determined the milk bottle’s rooftop locale. With only inches to spare beyond its walls, the only place left to go was up.”
Braum’s, based in Oklahoma City with a dairy in Tuttle, has had naming rights since 1997.
The Lunch Box/Homeless Alliance
A sign of the times, good times and past times, the sign from The Lunch Box, a popular downtown eatery for years and years and gone for a decade, survived and is on display at the Homeless Alliance Day Shelter.
The lunch room at 423 W Sheridan started in the 1920s, closed in 2013, and came down after a developer bought the property to make room for the 27-story BOK Park Plaza at 499 W Sheridan.
“The Lunch Box is where the idea for the Homeless Alliance was hatched,” said Kinsey Crocker, director of communications. “A group of people were there eating lunch and discussing homelessness in our city. From there, they formed a volunteer group that then formalized and became a nonprofit organization.
“When they decided to tear the restaurant down, we asked if we could have it. The construction company that built the new building where the Lunch Box used to be (Hines, in Houston) paid to have it restored and installed here. We turn the lights on during meal time.”
Will Rogers Theatre & Events Center
Will Rogers Theatre & Events Center, with its towering neon sign at 4322 N Western Ave., refurbished and reopened in 2008, dates to the 1940s.
“It was one of many single-screen theaters that graced the United States in a post World War II country,” the business says online. “Neighborhoods and cities alike boasted these theaters that were seen at the time as the top of the line and modern luxuries.
“Will Rogers Theater itself featured theater style seating on an incline, a concession area, original oak detailing, seating for 1000 patrons and incredibly detailed murals that spelled out the life and times of its namesake, the great Oklahoma cowboy, pilot and movie star Will Rogers.”
But that sign. That neon sign sings “Oklahoma” for one reason: Oklahoma’s favorite son, Will Penn Adair Rogers.
Senior Business Writer Richard Mize has covered housing, construction, commercial real estate and related topics for the newspaper and Oklahoman.com since 1999. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up here for his weekly newsletter, Real Estate with Richard Mize.