A Tale of Two Signs

The other day, as Nancy and I were driving up El Camino, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was this sign:


What had originally caught my attention was the little blue circular bit at the lower left of the sign, which reads “Family Fun.” Seems strange for a car wash, right? Perhaps they are going to add some amusements for the kids of people waiting for their cars to be washed? And then I realized that the sign was new. And it seemed familiar for some reason. So the other day I took a walk over there to take a closer look and to get some pictures. When I did so, I quickly figured out why it seemed familiar. Take a look at the back side:


It seems that when Mel’s Bowl was being torn down (to be replaced by a rather large apartment complex now under construction—I’ll get to that in a later post), the developers agreed to try to preserve the sign in some fashion. Exactly how it got to the car wash, I’m not sure, but I’m very pleased to see that the sign was not only moved, it was redone. And I must say, they’ve done a magnificent job. The sign is in great shape. I have yet to see it at night: hopefully they light it up (although I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it remains dark, given that the car wash is closed at night). But regardless, I am delighted to see that a bit of Mel’s Bowl lives on, and that someone in this town has a bit of respect for Redwood City history.

For the record, here is a picture of the sign before Mel’s was torn down:


In digging around to find the above picture, I was surprised to learn that Mel’s was originally designed (in 1960) as a combination bowling alley and drive-in movie theater. I have yet to find out if the theater part was ever built; I only recall the bowling alley being there, but I wasn’t in Redwood City back in the sixties. Does anyone reading this know for sure?

The Mel’s Bowl sign is cool, but it isn’t really all that historic. This sign, however, is:


Although you may not be familiar with Ampex, you’ve likely seen the sign countless times: it is located just off 101, south of Woodside Rd. Although not nearly as interesting, from an artistic perspective, as the Mel’s Bowl sign, this one symbolizes one of the progenitors of Silicon Valley. Ampex was founded way back in 1944, in San Carlos at the corner of Laurel and Howard (where the Curves is today, across Laurel from White Oak Flower Shoppe). They moved to Redwood City in the early 1950s. Although founded to make electric motors and generators, they were one of the first US companies to make magnetic tape recorders, and those are what made the Ampex name famous. Not necessarily a household name, since although Ampex did make some tape recorders for home use they were really known for their professional multi-track audio, video, and data recorders. Among many other things Ampex is credited for having invented the first practical video tape recorder.

Ampex has been in Redwood City for about sixty years now. Not a long time in the eyes of a historian, perhaps, but a very long time in the history of modern technology. Ampex still exists today: that sign marks the current location of their global  headquarters, at 500 Broadway in Redwood City. So why am I talking about this sign? Because its days appear to be numbered.

As you may be able to tell from the above photograph, the sign sits in the divider between Stanford’s outpatient center and Ampex’s headquarters, which are located in the “Mid-Point Technology Park.” And as you might have seen in the recent news, Redwood City’s planning commission has recommended for approval a new Stanford satellite campus that will occupy the lion’s share of the Mid-Point Technology Park. If this project goes ahead, there is some question as to the fate of the Ampex sign. According to a recent San Jose Mercury News article:

The project will also entail removing the long-standing Ampex sign and a plaza with fountains designed by architect John Carl Warnecke, which the city’s Historical Resources Advisory Committee recommended keeping.

Steve Elliott, managing director of development for Stanford University, said consultants found that the sign and fountains did not meet federal and state standards to be considered historical resources.

While I doubt that the fountains will survive, the word “removal” when applied to the sign hopefully just means that it will be relocated and kept. I for one will be keeping a close eye on this: Ampex is a name Redwood City should be proud of, and we shouldn’t let this bit of history go too easily, even for a project with as many good points as this one appears to have. (note: I have this “Stanford in Redwood City” project on my list of topics to write about, but given that it hasn’t even received city council approval yet I have it on a back burner for the moment.) The sign may not rate historical status according to federal and state standards, but I don’t see how that matters. In the minds of those of us who have been involved in technology all of our lives, the Ampex sign stands for something important: something that shouldn’t be forgotten. If we can preserve evidence of a bowling alley built in the 1960’s, surely we can do the same for one of Silicon Valley’s storied companies. Can’t we?

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Signs

  1. Dear Greg,

    A dear friend of mine recently contacted me after years of distance. We have talked about many things over the last couple of weeks and I had asked her if Mel’s Bowl was still in existence. I suspected it was not but was curious because I used to hang out there for a while and was a friends with the guys who ran the pro shop there. I bowled with his son, who also worked in the pro shop. She sent me this page, probably to answer my question.

    But on to your question about the drive-in theater. I grew up in Redwood City (1947-1964) and was out and about for quite a few years (graduated from Sequoia in 1963). As far as I know, and my fading memories allow, there was never a drive-in at Mel’s. I was surprised to see that one was designed for there. Since I made many trips over there. both walking and driving, I feel sure I would have remembered that. The closest drive-in was in Belmont.

    Ampex. Ahh, the name rests easy on my mind. I grew up on Charter Street and as I remember Ampex built their first building on Charter between Spring Street and Bay Road. One of my good buddies mother worked at Ampex for many years. I would hope too that the sign would not just be cleared out. As you say, it was and still is an important piece of Redwood City history.

    I had forgotten about the ‘Best by Government Test” tagline for Redwood City. Thanks for having that in your header.

    I will be reading more of your articles.

    Norton Williams

    • Thanks for sharing your memories! Glad to have confirmed that there never was a drive-in at Mel’s. Sadly, of course, Mel’s is long gone — although as that article indicates, the sign is still here (but just north of Whipple, at the car wash).

      Thanks for reading!


  2. Dear Greg–
    My name is Joe Mathews and I am writing a music biography on the Sons of Champlin, a Marin County based band that came to prominence in the late 1960s. In setting the historical context for the book I reviewed the social and economic transformation of the Bay Area during WWII and the postwar boom, including the government stimulated tech emphasis that gave birth to Silicon Valley. As it pertained directly to the recording industry in particular, Ampex was a pioneer in developing magnetic tape and high fidelity recording on the commercial level. Anyone growing up in the region heading south on the 101 past Redwood City remembers the Ampex sign. I was raised in the area, graduating from Woodside High School in 1970. In any case, I was wondering if I might have permission to use your photo of the sign in my book. Please let me know if there is a fee involved as even though this is a low budget effort, I like to try and pay something to everyone who contributes. I can be reached at: ajmathews2@gmail.com. Thanks very much for getting back to me and I really enjoyed the article–
    Joe Mathews

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