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Wayne E. Heath, 87; Brought a Novel Dimension to Signs

Times Staff Writer

The Felix Chevrolet sign high above Figueroa Street, the Flamingo Hilton neon extravaganza in Las Vegas, the enormous Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets spinning on poles. These and many other images familiar to consumers sprang from the same source: Wayne E. Heath, a sign painter who turned a two-man operation into a national business specializing in electrical and dimensional signs.

Heath died May 15 in a Palm Desert nursing home after battling prostate cancer and other ailments, his grandson David Heath said. He was 87.

Wayne Heath arrived in Los Angeles in 1948, during the postwar boom. He and his partner, Tony Gorsich, started Heath and Gorsich Sign Contractors, lettering storefront windows and roadside billboards, but they soon branched out. At a time when most signs were square boxes on metal poles, they began rethinking the possibilities of catching the attention of people speeding past in cars.

They tried geometric shapes and bold colors, using plexiglass and neon for electrified and free-standing signs.

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“He changed the way signs are designed,” Jack Lloyd, a longtime Heath sales representative, told The Times. “They used to be black and white, blue and white, red and white. He used incredible shapes and wild colors people had never seen in signs before.”

By 1952, Heath, who bought out Gorsich and renamed the business Heath and Co., was building a client list that would endure for decades. Verne Winchell, founder of the original Winchell’s doughnut shop in Temple City, and Harold Butler, a restaurant entrepreneur who opened the first Denny’s, enjoyed the brand recognition Heath’s distinctive signs brought them.

Then there was Nick Shammas and Felix the Cat. In 1958, Shammas moved his dealership and its cat logo from downtown to Figueroa and Jefferson Boulevard. Heath and Co. incorporated neon and plastic for what would become a kitschy Los Angeles landmark.

“Nobody had ever put that big a sign on top of a roof,” Lloyd said. “It was so big and unique you couldn’t help but see it.”

Heath was known for his design sense, but as the business expanded, he brought on more designers for his growing art department. One of them was Raul Rodriguez, now a noted float designer for the Rose Parade and Disneyland. Rodriguez helped design a spectacular hyperactive neon display for the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas and a 12-story free-standing clown for the Circus Circus casino in Reno.

“He was one of my mentors,” Rodriguez said of Heath. “He always wanted to make the aesthetics a little better. He was very innovative.”

As Heath’s clients expanded into regional and national franchises, the sign business grew as well. The company produced signs for drive-in restaurants (Burger King), markets (Ralphs) and banks (First Interstate), among other businesses. Heath sold his controlling interest to Fischbach and Moore in 1967 but continued to run the company until 1984, when he retired. (The company has since become Federal Heath Sign Co.)

Wayne Elmer Heath was born June 4, 1918, in Plattville, Ill., the only child of Harry, a blacksmith, and Jesse Heath. After dropping out of high school, Heath went to Chicago, where he learned to paint signs.

His interest in race cars led to a friendship with driver Tony Bettenhausen, who brought Heath to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1940s to paint numbers on cars.

In addition to his grandson David of Huntington Beach, Heath is survived by his wife, Kumiko, of Palm Desert; a daughter, Sharon Heath, also of Palm Desert; a granddaughter, Lisa Heath, of Solana Beach; and a great-granddaughter, Kelly Bresanello, of Monterey.

Services will be private.


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