Even in Death, He Has Last Laugh

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Conrad Escalante knew death was life's big stinker. So he made a few important arrangements with his family. When the fire in his blood cooled, his body was to be buried in a custom-built 1958 Corvette convertible casket so he might stylishly cruise his way to the pearly gates.

He wanted the swirl of enjoyed oddities that were important in his life to follow him in death. "Conrad loved a good laugh, and he certainly loved surprises. He only had a few requests for his funeral, and one of them was that we play 'Hamster Love,"' said son-in-law Richard Hastings. "Of course, this is from a guy who lived in a purple house."

As a recording played of his daughter, Mariana, singing a version of Dr. Demento's song of "pickled" and "sauteed" hamster sandwiches, mourners broke from tears to laughter. In the end, he wasn't buried in the Corvette casket, but he did rest in it.

Escalante was a sign maker, a man of bright letters. An entrepreneur and workaholic, his sign company, Superior Electrical Advertising is one of the largest sign manufacturers in Southern California. Chances are if you've spotted a McDonald's, Starbucks or Krispy Kreme sign, it's the work of Superior.

And he was the consummate salesman. He attached metal frames and handlebars to his neon signs as if they were suitcases. He was known to squirt mustard and ketchup on his suit before closing deals to prove a good salesman didn't need a new suit for a sales presentation. He urged his children and young employees to get college degrees.

Escalante found love all around him--marrying six times. His seven children, born to two wives, secretly nicknamed their father "Bowwow" because "he liked to bark at people." On Sundays, the family could be found attending Mass or at the bullfights in Tijuana.

Escalante was buried last week at Forest Lawn in Cypress. He died June 15 at age 76 from congestive heart failure--two days before Father's Day. On the eve of the funeral services, Escalante lay peacefully in his designer coffin, built of carved wood, resin and painted by artists from Ghana.

"My father loved art, and he was an eccentric man," said daughter Mary Ann Nasser of Huntington Beach, who added that the fantasy casket idea was hatched by her older brother, Greg.

But the custom coffin with chrome front grille didn't get the green light. Hours before services, Escalante's family switched caskets, opting for a more conventional model: polished mahogany with pillowy interior.

"When we saw the [Corvette] casket in church, it just seemed wrong to us," Mary Ann said of the family's last minute change of heart. Her father's upper body lay under the car's hood, which served as the casket's lid. "He looked so small inside and the casket looked like a toy car. It just would've seemed a mockery to our father, who was larger than life."

The funeral industry has seen its share of unconventional requests, but eccentric burials are still an arresting sight at cemeteries, mortuary attendants say. "It's very unusual to have a casket like this one. This isn't something you see every day," said Amilka Crego-Mendez, a counselor at Forest Lawn.

Escalante's humor to the end was no surprise to his relatives and close friends. A premature gray, he lived as if he were 20-something. He loved shocking people and practical jokes. He slept four hours a night to have more time to work, do crossword puzzles and watch old movies. He loved flamboyant clothes and occasionally wore mismatched shoes .

His quirky style at times clashed with those around him, particularly his neighbors. When Escalante painted his house three shades of purple--his favorite color--residents were outraged. Meetings were held in protest, but Escalante finally won his neighbors' sympathies. His purple house became a Signal Hill landmark.

Born Feb. 8 in East Los Angeles to immigrants from Sonora, Mexico, Escalante weathered his mother's death when he was 9. He left home at 13. He was a Navy signalman on an aircraft carrier during World War II. He enrolled in Compton College afterward and later attended Loyola University to study business administration and law but dropped out to provide for his family. He worked part time as a salesman. In 1959, he founded his sign company, then called Superior Outdoor Display, with partner Kozell Boren and became a self-made millionaire.

From small illuminated letters to custom neon flights of fancy, he used to refer to his signs as "eye pollution." His company employs more than 140 workers, many of whom he has influenced as a mentor through a "tough love" philosophy. Those who knew him have compared him to a cactus: prickly outside but soft inside.

"He was the Horatio Alger story who passed on the Great American Dream to all he encountered," said former employee Kenneth B. Gerenraich, who left the sign company and became a podiatrist.

Mariachi music was part of his Mexican American fabric. The songs, he said, were uplifting and at times got him into trouble. He once booked one of his favorite mariachi bands in a Long Beach bar for a celebration. A brawl broke out, however, when a reveler started waving a gun. The singer and her bandmates didn't flinch. Escalante later remarked, "Only a good mariachi band can bring out that kind of passion in people."

Such tales, small and tall, floated around Escalante's name. As if he had the last laugh, a black-clad, sombrero-waving mariachi band kicked up mourners' spirits at the wake. The family wants to donate the Corvette coffin in Escalante's name to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

Conrad Escalante bucked tradition in life, and didn't want reverence even in death. He followed his own lighted path.

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