Orson Bean, veteran actor and longtime resident of Venice's canal district, has a thing for Americana, especially old restaurant and retail signs that he sees as folk art.
"It's really just pop culture," he says. "Advertising has always been part show biz."
Oversized and retro, Bean's signs are well suited for the endless scale of blue sky and sunshine overhead. Their very presence brings out the storyteller in him. There's the tale of the neon billboard that's mounted against a ficus-covered fence in the garden he shares with his wife, actress Alley Mills.
"It's from the Simple Simon rhyme, but it was also the logo for Howard Johnson's restaurants," Bean says. Rendered in carnival-colored neon tubes, the once-ubiquitous image of a baker, a boy and his dog promised coffee and a slice of pie to drivers along the Jersey Turnpike.
The neon HoJo is one of several pieces Bean has collected as garden art. He likes the way they personalize the wide landscape, which he created by combining three adjacent cottages and their yards over the years. Bean, who starred in "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" in the '90s and has since appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, including "Two and a Half Men" and " The Closer," bought his first Venice property in the early 1970s for $113,000.
He and Mills, who plays Pamela Douglas on "The Bold and the Beautiful," have another sign that promises "Cash for Cars," and it too lights up at night. A third, its paint faded and beginning to chip, advertises a sheet metal shop.
There is a down side to having neon tubes so close to the lawn, where Bean's seven grandchildren often play ball. Fortunately, he has been able to replace or repair occasional damage. "Only the chef's hat is original," Bean says.