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An Official Sign of Trouble

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than 30 years Art Fast has served up large portions of yuks along with the burgers and fries at his Downey cafe.

A marquee atop his tiny Arthur’s restaurant regales motorists on Lakewood Boulevard with weekly messages such as “Seating for 1,000--30 at a time,” “Thanks Gourmet Magazine” and “Will cook for cash.”

But city officials may soon have the last laugh with their own message to Fast: “You’re under arrest.”

City administrators, finally enforcing a 1977 ordinance that bans rooftop signs, have taken Fast to court for refusing to remove the marquee. When he missed a court appearance last month, a warrant for his arrest was issued.

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Both sides say the dispute is no joke.

Fast contends that he might have to shut down his 38-year-old eatery if he is forced to remove the eye-catching sign.

Downey officials say its removal is a matter of fairness to more than 100 other businesses that have complied with the law and taken down their rooftop advertising.

So Fast, 69, is lying low--and keeping the marquee up.

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The police haven’t come for him yet, however. “And I’m driving very carefully so I don’t get pulled over,” he said.

Fast guesses the attention-grabbing one-liners that he has posted on his sign since 1967 account for as much as 30% of his business.

“Maybe I should put something like ‘Jesus saves, Moses invests’ and claim the city is violating my religious rights,” he said with a laugh.

Plenty of the messages over the years have been irreverent.

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In the middle of a political payoff scandal a few years ago, Fast’s sign read “Congressmen welcome--cash only.” When a TV expose of dirty restaurants aired last year, it read: “You’re in clean hands at Arthur’s.”

When women’s rights were an issue a few years ago, it read: “Local oranges squeezed by local tomatoes.”

Most messages poke fun at Fast and his restaurant.

“Our pancakes sell like hot cakes,” read one last fall. “Our chili beans speak for themselves.” “Fresh hamburger, old owner,” “Banquet facilities for six or less,” others have read.

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Fast’s customers support him.

“Many times it’s put a smile on my face,” said Clyde Elam, a retired manufacturer. “The sign is a plus for the city. The city fathers are absolutely out of their minds to think otherwise.”

Randy Martin, a Downey banker and real estate broker, said permanent exemptions should be allowed for signs like Fast’s that were up before the rooftop ban was enacted.

“A little guy like Art doesn’t have the clout of a restaurant chain. I think it’s sad that everybody’s got to look the same,” Martin said.

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Downey City Manager Gerald Caton said the law was enacted to eliminate a jumble of ugly advertising structures. He said Fast has had 10 years to squeeze extra value out of his sign.

“We’ve been extremely fair. Everyone else has complied” and now it’s a matter of fairness on Fast’s part, Caton said.

City prosecutor Elizabeth Feffer said she reduced the criminal complaint against Fast from a misdemeanor to an infraction to keep Fast from facing jail time.

She said a judge in April ordered the sign removed. The warrant for Fast’s arrest was issued by a Downey Municipal Court judge when Fast missed an Oct. 6 court date, she said.

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“Some of the jokes I actually like. They’re clever,” Feffer said. But for now, she added, “he’s a fugitive.”

Fast contended that he learned about the October hearing too late to attend. He said he will have one final rooftop message if he’s hauled away in handcuffs.

“It will be my epitaph,” he said.

“It will say, ‘The City of Downey Happens.’ ”

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