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Surveying the Sam’s Sign

We checked out the current condition of the former Yonge Street icon.

The first thing we noticed while gazing upon the Sam the Record Man sign for the first time in half a decade was the neat organization of its components. Around 1,000 segments of the former Yonge Street icon are labelled with brown tags, outlining where each piece will fit whenever (if ever?) the sign is reassembled, right down to row and sector numbers.

“It’s our responsibility to Ryerson and the people to make sure that it’s not being mishandled and treated wrongly,” notes David Grose, the national sales manager of Gregory Signs. His firm supervised the dismantling of the sign following the 2008 edition of Nuit Blanche, and periodically checks in at its current home in a nondescript industrial park north of the city.

The general storage area looked slightly less ramshackle than Sam’s itself used to be. The plastic store nameplates line the walls, and custom-built racks hold the neon tubes, which are mounted onto sliding backboards. Because the original specifications of the north disc no longer exist, an engineer climbed behind the sign while it was still mounted to measure and photograph its rear structure.

Since its disappearance from public view, the sign’s fate has been mired in controversy. Ryerson showed little eagerness to remount it on the Student Learning Centre rising on the Sam’s original site, suggesting alternate sites like the school library. In August, council considered a proposal to permit the university to create a substitute set of interpretative materials, including plaques and a replica of the sign embedded in the sidewalk—a proposal that was rejected. Public outcry has manifested itself in a Facebook group; meetings between sign preservationists, Ryerson, and the City; and calls from musicians ranging from Feist to Gordon Lightfoot to remount the sign. Rumours that the sign had been destroyed were muted after Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) recently tweeted an image of its current condition.

Remounting the sign, if a location is ever settled on, will be laborious. Each component will need to be tested to determine its functionality, for starters. (When the sign was relit during Nuit Blanche, 25 per cent of the transformers and 30 per cent of the neon tubes were replaced—and that was after only a short period of inactivity.) Grose highlighted some features that will require updating, such as new connectors between the tubes and power supply, which will reduce corrosion. It’s not just the sign itself that will need to be tested—its location will also. Any new home will need to be assessed, to determine if it can support the sign’s weight and if it can supply the 200 amps of power currently required to light the fixture.

Whenever the go-ahead is given, portions of the sign will be assembled into several sections for mounting. Then the tubing will be placed on top and given a final test.

Grose suggested that technological advances offer greater flexibility for the sign’s future use. He noted that the original mechanism which made the discs “spin” is outdated, and could be replaced with a programmable piece called an electronic flashing unit. The original patterns could be recreated by studying videos of the original discs in action. The technology could also be used to program different patterns, such as the independent lighting up of each tube.

“It’s an important part of putting the sign back up,” Grose notes. “People want to see that animation. It’s part of what people remember.”

Photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.


  • Suicide Boi

    This does not count as “heritage”, you know.

    • Testu

      The City of Toronto Heritage Preservation Services seem to think it is. It is possible that their opinion is slightly more informed than your own.

      • andrew97

        Appeal to authority. How is it heritage, exactly? The Sam’s sign is an advertisement.

        • Testu

          Thanks for linking the one click guide to obnoxious internet debating. It’s an appeal to authority, but in this case, a valid one.

          Heritage can also include iconic advertisements that act as cultural touchstones, like the Sam the Record Man sign and the marquees at Honest Ed’s. It’s a reminder of the areas’ commercial past, businesses that helped define the neighbourhood. They’re flashy and occasionally grotesque but they’re a part of what made the area what it is, hence part of its heritage.

          • andrew97

            Heritage value is conferred by the heritage board. So if it’s a valid appeal to authority, then it’s tautological. The heritage board could decide a piece of gum on the sidewalk has heritage value, and you could use the same argument.

            I think people are nostalgic for the Sam’s sign, and we should be careful to distinguish nostalgia from heritage.