Dropping out of Hollywood High in the 10th grade wasn't an easy decision to make, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I knew I wanted to become a commercial artist, and it didn't seem like acquiring more formal education was really necessary to achieve this.
I already had an after-school job at the Ralphs Market near the one-room apartment I shared with my mother — and they told me I could work there full time if I ever decided to quit school. And I was quite sure I needed the money more than I needed any additional schooling.
My mom, who had recently broken up with her fourth husband, didn't always have a job – and when she did, she usually earned just about enough to make ends meet. Furthermore, she and I weren't getting along too well and I really wanted to get my own apartment.
Beyond that, school wasn't a fun place for me. I was a glasses-wearing "square" who wasn't good at sports, who wasn't part of any "in" crowd, and who was, as near as I could figure, completely invisible to girls. But I was an optimist who thought that if I could just be free to pursue my own ideas, everything would eventually work out fine. So, after being at Hollywood High for less than six months, I decided it was time to move on.
However, within a few days I heard from the Attendance Office. They told me that if one wished to quit school before age 16 (or before obtaining a high school diploma—whichever came first) he was required to attend a four-hour weekly class at a special school in downtown Los Angeles called The Metropolitan Trade & Technical Institute.
Hoping to Sign Up for an "Art" Class
The good news was that the class could be an elective — so I signed up for an "art" class. I was hoping they had some figure-drawing classes (like they did at the Chinouard School of Art, which was a few blocks away) because I had heard they used live nude models. Well, the women were nude, but the guys wore jock straps. But then seeing naked guys wasn't what I had in mind, anyway.
However, it turned out to be just a "general" art class, with an instructor who wasn't really an artist — or even a teacher for that matter. He was a sign-painter who did free-lance work for several of the local department stores, and would spend his classroom time lettering showcards and paper signs.
Teacher Who Didn't Teach & Students Who Couldn't Care Less
The students were told to just practice their drawing, and not to bother him any more than they had to. This was fine with them, since most were there just to put in their compulsory four hours a week.
But I found myself increasingly drawn to watching Mr. Thompson, as he would routinely produce a number of colorful signs during each session with what appeared to be relatively little effort. As he became aware of my growing interest, he started telling me about how it was a lot easier to make a living as a sign-painter than as an artist.
"Somebody always needs a sign," he would say, "but go try to find somebody who needs a mural painted."
Well, I had never been particularly interested in the idea of becoming a sign painter, since I was sure I was destined to become another Norman Rockwell—or, at least, another Al Capp or Chic Young. Besides—sign painters (according to rumors I had heard) had a reputation for being low-life alcoholics who would generally work just long enough to buy their next bottle of booze, and then disappear till they needed some more.
However, my mother had frequently mentioned an uncle who survived the Great Depression by going into restaurants and offering to paint a sign for the price of a meal. In any case, Mr. Thompson was the first sign-painter I had ever met, and I was quite impressed with what appeared to be a pretty cool way to make some easy money.
So while my classmates were drawing airplanes or spaceships or Frankenstein monsters, I was busy trying to learn Mr. Thompson's lettering techniques. The problem was that while lettering seemed to come easily to him, I tended to labor over each brushstroke as if I were creating a Rembrandt masterpiece. I had a lot to learn.
Anyway, I bought some poster colors and a couple of lettering brushes and started practicing. My first "sale" was to the liquor store around the corner from where we lived (and where my mother used to regularly send me along with a note to buy her cigarettes).
First Sign Order
Mr. Corvelli, the store owner, probably didn't really need any signs, but he had a crush on my mother and always seemed anxious to please her. In any case, she had told him I was a talented artist who would be glad to do any lettering he might need around the store. She was really anxious for me to start following in her late uncle's footsteps and was determined to get me my first order.
So Mr. Corvelli decided he could use a simple poster reading "LlQUOR — BEER — WlNE." Well, it took several hours to complete it, and I ended up throwing away several partially finished signs that didn't come up to my "artistic standards." But I finally completed what I thought was a rather attractive poster that had blue letters on a white background with some yellow trim.
When I took Mr. Corvelli the completed job he gave me 25 cents plus an Oh Henry candy bar—even though there was a misspelled word, "LlQUER". Of course I offered to correct the error, but he said not to bother because most of his customers wouldn't know the difference anyway. Then he gave me a pat on the head and told me to go tell my mother how pleased he was with the sign.
One of the things he did to please her,
as mentioned before, was to sell me cigarettes whenever I came in with a note
even though doing so was strictly illegal a fact about which I continually reminded my mom, in hopes that she would stop sending me. But as long as Mr. Corvelli was willling to keep supplying, there was no way she was going to stop sending me.
My mom normally smoked about two packs a day, and rarely bought by the carton — so she needed to restock daily. This was typical of her buying habits. Her income would normally depend on tips, earned as a waitress or a manicurist, and she would usually have just about enough cash to get us through each day. Buying anything in quantity to get a price break is something I don't remember ever doing.