When the Hammer Museum promoted its first-ever "Made in L.A." exhibition this summer, its advertising was printed on the city's most iconic poster: bold black letters on a high-voltage variegated background of a technicolor rainbow. For more than half a century, these posters been churned out by the Colby Poster Printing Company, located in the Pico-Union neighborhood. Colby even collaborated with the Hammer on their design. High art intersected art on the street.
Everyone has seen Colby's posters. The fluorescent rectangles are lashed to chain link fences, utility poles, trees and freeway entrance ramps across Southern California, advertising strictly local, under-the-radar events: prizefights, school festivals, small-time circuses and rodeos, dances and concerts ranging from mariachi and banda to hip-hop and heavy metal.
Colby Poster's president, Glenn Hinman, points out that stapling posters to trees, stop signs and utility poles is illegal. But put up one of his brightly-colored beauties legally, say on a chain link fence with the owner's permission, and "on a good corner, it will be seen by hundreds of cars a day," he says. "On some intersections, thousands."
On the advantages of the DayGlo backgrounds, Hinman is an evangelist. "These colors are two to three times more effective" than non-fluorescent hues, he says. For reggae concerts, Colby offers its tri-color backgrounds in red, yellow and green. For Mexican-themed events, the green, white and red combination is popular.
Want to identify a Colby poster? Look for the union bug at the bottom. Hinman, whose grandfather, Herbert Lee Colby, began the firm in 1946, proudly says that the small company includes three unions - "my older brother sets type and is in one union, the letterpress operator is in another union and my younger brother and two employees are in the union for silkscreen."
Colby Poster earns its bread and butter from political posters and yard signs, and during this political autumn, business is humming. But tight budgets, particularly from Democrats hurt by embezzlement from an accountant's office, and low cost competition from China are taking its toll. The company, which had 24 employees in the 1970s, now has nine. Hinman, who runs the firm with his brothers Larry and Lee, says he honestly doesn't know what the future of the company will be next year.
It would be tragic to lose this repository of cultural and political history. The shop has a treasure trove of half-tone engravings used on vintage posters that document the early days of Gene Autry, Elvis, Ray Charles, Martin Luther King and dozens of lesser-knowns. The engravings sit on dusty shelves, but the company has been less careful about saving copies of its posters. They were quickly and cheaply made, and destined to have a short shelf life.
A few savvy collectors have realized their worth. Paul Wultz, a retired commercial decorator, began pulling Colby posters down from telephone poles in San Diego in the late 1950s. He saved them because he liked the artists being advertised, such as the Coasters, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Etta James. Many of the posters promoted shows at downtown San Diego's Pacific Ballroom.
Later, when Wultz would travel to Los Angeles for work, he would stop at Colby Poster and buy extras of the posters advertising rock and roll artists that interested him. He estimates that he now has a few hundred Colby posters, and says that the 14x22-inch "boxing style" posters appeal to him more than the better-known psychedelic posters from the Fillmore in San Francisco. Rare originals of those Northern California posters sell for thousands of dollars.
Wultz says it has been a while since he's added to his Colby collection. "Promoters don't use posters for rock bands any more," he observes. "It's all on the Internet now."
One bright spot for the company has been interest from fine artists. About 15 percent of the company's business now comes from artists commissioning work with the distinctive Colby backgrounds and fonts. Although the company can print digitally, it still has letterpress capabilities and trays of old typefaces, with edges worn from use. "Artists like the imperfections, the nicks and ticks of the type," notes Hinman. Some of the metal type predates the company's founding, having being purchased from an even older printer that went out of business.
Currently, a selection of Colby posters is on display at a gallery in Hoxton Square, London. Curator Anthony Burrill, a Colby fan, had Hinman ship him dozens of original posters. "Work by Colby Poster Printing Company" will be on display there through Oct. 27.
And for now, a rotating display of Colby work can be viewed any time on sidewalks and streets throughout the Southland.
Colby Poster Printing Company is at 1332 W. 12th Place, Los Angeles, CA 90015.
Top Image: by Noe Montes.
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