Delia Cinchett, widowed 10 years and in ill health, could tell that her son John had something important on his mind when he burst through her door.
"Remember all those pictures you took of the signs Dad made?" he asked her.
She had almost forgotten about them. It was a lifetime ago 40, 50 years when she stood on bustling street corners in Tampa with her little black Yashika camera, proudly snapping photos of each new neon sign her husband crafted.
Puzzled by her son's sudden interest in the old pictures, Delia thought about where they might have ended up.
Try the attic, she told him.
John headed up and a few minutes later, Delia heard a shriek of joy.
"Actually, Johnny went wild," she says with a chuckle.
* * *
Delia didn't know it then, but every time she peered through the viewfinder and snapped a picture, she was recording history. Her scrapbook showcase of her husband's talent would become an unusually rich treasure trove of Tampa history.
The photos are published in John Cinchett's new book, "Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes" (Arcadia Publishing; $21.99). The softcover book includes more than 200 vintage photographs most never seen by the public of local landmarks, businesses and street signs that defined Tampa in the 1950s and '60s.
"Without my mother, this would never be possible," Cinchett says.
Neon signs ran in the family. His grandfather, Frank Cinchett, operated a neon sign company in Philadelphia until 1947, when he visited Tampa and fell in love with the emerging Southern city. He moved here a year later and set up shop at 4707 N. Florida Ave.
Frank's son, John F. Cinchett, married West Tampa girl Delia Collera and eventually took over the business. They raised two children and faithfully attended St. Joseph's Catholic Church. John V. had an artistic flair that came across in his larger-than-life glowing signs; Delia handled the books and took photos of his creations. The pictures were family mementos, but also served as a portfolio to show prospective clients.
There were hundreds over the years, from the first Lowry Park Zoo entrance to the curvaceous crowned Burger Queen beauty in Seminole Heights heralding "broasted chicken" for 79 cents. Cinchett neon signs lured customers to everything from nightclubs to Baptist churches, motels to pharmacies, soda shops to neighborhood banks, jewelry stores to dry cleaners.
It was an era of new names: the Fred Astaire Dance Studio, Publix Supermarkets, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dairy Queen. Giant-sized bottle caps stamped with the Pepsi Cola logo beamed from rooftop perches. Maas Brothers, Wolf Brothers, Kinney Shoes, Mary Jane Shoes, JC Penney, Stanley Jewelers, Woolworths all beckoned shoppers to visit downtown. The neon signs drew them like moths to a light.
"Tampa was changing all around us," Delia recalls. "But I knew it wouldn't look like this forever. I knew it would change again."
And in time, it did.
* * *
John V. Cinchett died in 1997. Delia and son John, who had worked alongside his father for several years, closed the shop then, too. Business had slowed over the years as neon's appeal faded with the advance of digital technology and plastic.
And many of John V.'s creations already had disappeared by the time he passed away, gone like the businesses they touted.
"Unfortunately, neon signs are made of metal and glass," says John, who sets up software programs for credit-card terminals through Sterling Payment Technologies. "Metal rusts and the glass breaks. They've all ended up in junkyards, I'm sure."
Nostalgia Spawns Book Idea
At 42, the younger Cinchett never experienced the downtown Tampa captured in his mother's photos. But he loved hearing stories of the "nifty '50s" and how they shaped the city's modern landscape.
It's that love of nostalgia that drives him to Tampa from his home in Clearwater on Sundays to play the organ at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. That's where his mother's father was baptized in 1909 and where his parents married in 1956. He loves history and a sense of place.
After seeing a book called "Tampa: The Early Years," Cinchett started thinking about pursuing his own book. Many of the photographs of his father's signs also show women wearing poodle skirts, concrete markers used as street signs, limo-sized Thunderbirds and shiny red telephone booths.
"It's a time warp, an image catching a moment in our cultural history," Cinchett says. "Things we took for granted then are so intriguing now."
He had dozens of pictures packed up from his father's office. But the discovery of the box in his mother's attic sealed the deal.
He worked with Arcadia Publishing of South Carolina, which specializes in regional history books with its "Images of America" series, local historians, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Library, and photo restoration companies. The project took about a year.
Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, says in most regional museums, "history seems to stop right after World War II."
"Before that point, things seem old. But after that, we don't have a lot to show," he says. "Yet those post-war years were a fascinating time, especially with all the growth we had in Florida. It's funny how people may have historic collections like this, and not even realize their significance."
The center is a beneficiary of one of Cinchett's finds: a 1956 photo welcoming the new Britton Plaza in South Tampa. The sprawling shopping complex the likes of which would eventually doom the downtown business district offered ample free parking and a multitude of stores for a one-stop shopping experience. That was a new concept, and one welcomed by people moving to the suburbs.
A City Of Family Businesses
As aware as he was about his city's history, Cinchett made some discoveries while working on the project. Among them, Tampa's commerce was built on the backs of family-owned businesses. Corporate America and chain stores were barely visible in the 1950s. Instead, families ran companies for several generations, banking their future on the success of their stores.
"Even ours was a three-generation business, and it paid for the private education of both me and my sister," he says. "People just didn't work behind counters. It was much more of a long-standing personal investment."
* * *
Cinchett is enjoying his role as a brand-new author with a brand-new book out.
He's got signings and speaking appearances lined up. He donated a copy to his alma mater, Tampa Catholic High School, and a whole box to St. Joseph's gift store, with the proceeds going to the church's pipe organ restoration project. Chain bookstores and Walgreens will carry "Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes," along with independent shops like Inkwood Books and the Ybor City State Museum Gift Shop.
The biggest benefit, he says, is how the project has revitalized his 75-year-old mother, who has suffered the loss of health and independence in recent years.
Delia lives in Brandon now, to be closer to her daughter, and misses the days when she could catch a trolley a block from her house to go downtown. She would stroll the crowded streets, wave to friends and business acquaintances, duck in Viola Todd to pick up a pair of evening gloves, and stop at the luncheonette at Woolworth's for a hot meal. When dusk came, she could see the spectacular neon Eiffel Tower, nearly 15 feet tall, welcoming patrons to Chez Louis, Tampa's finest nightclub on then-West Grand Central Avenue.
Helping her son with his book sorting through photos and adding her memories to the handwritten captions has been an unexpected opportunity to relive those bygone days.
And her place in Tampa history is right there in the front, printed for everyone to read:
"This book is dedicated to my beloved mother, Delia Cinchett, whose loving radiance and sparkling personality shine on you like a flashy neon sign!"
Book 'Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes' born of forgotten '50s photos By Victoria Bekiempis - 02/13/2009 St. Petersburg Times
He loves the din of chrome diners, the growl of hot rods and the crinoline of poodle skirts. His favorite TV show is Happy Days.
John V. Cinchett is fascinated by the 1950s, the years when his father was busy supplying neon signs to a growing, bustling Tampa.
In time, Cinchett's passion for the 1950s and his love of commercial neon art would collide. He spent years compiling and organizing rare photos of Tampa from that era. The photos were the genesis for a book, Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes, which debuted this month.
Cinchett's collection, one local expert said, provides a unique glimpse of Tampa because it picks up where other historic photo collections leave off.
The book is about family history as much as civic history. Cinchett never knew his grandfather but was able to gain a sense of his life through the photos.
"This has been such a joy for me," Cinchett said. "I have discovered so many treasures."
The book's 200 photos reveal the Tampa that was a thriving commercial center as well as a place where teens slipped into sinkholes for a quick dip, chatted at drive-ins and monkeyed with muscle cars.
A lot of Cinchett's book focuses on the era's neon signs: princess-cut diamonds for a jewelry shop, a curvy sombrero for a Mexican restaurant, a hanger and a clock for a Florida Avenue dry cleaner.
That's because the company his grandfather started in 1948 molded the glowing glass tubes for many Tampa hot spots. Cinchett's mother, Delia, was the family shutterbug, snapping shots of the company's work and the surrounding cityscape. Those photos are the bedrock of Cinchett's book.
When Cinchett came across these images, he didn't imagine they'd be published.
"I never really knew what to do with them," he said. "I never knew what the right direction would be."
His path to becoming an author was accidental. He works in financial services and plays the church organ, and had never written anything for print. He stumbled upon the photos in an unassuming, paint-splattered storeroom of the shop.
His father, John F. Cinchett, wanted to downsize operations in the late 1980s, and gave his son the task of cleaning and organizing. An employee, Cinchett said, was about to junk a dusty box of old magazines. Then he saw an antique snapshot's brittle yellow corner poking through.
"I said, 'No, let's not throw that out yet,' " he said.
So he stored the photos at the shop again, then moved them to his mother's attic after his father's death in 1997. A few months later, a newspaper writer began periodically asking Cinchett for historic Tampa photos. This prompted Cinchett, 42, to organize the photos. He also had them cleaned and restored, removing the accumulated paint spots, mold and mildew. Some $1,000 later, the photos were preserved.
An aha moment
It wasn't until Cinchett saw a book of Tampa photos from Arcadia Publishing, the same company that ended up printing his book, that he knew what to do. Cinchett was able to select his favorite photos and a lightweight book format that Tampa's elderly community could easily read.
"I thought, 'That would be the perfect format for my collection,' " he said.
Arcadia agreed, finding the images' quality and Cinchett's attitude refreshing, said Luke Cunningham, an editor for the South Carolina publisher.
"We were just really impressed with what he had," he said. "It really wasn't about him or writing a book per se. He was more interested in the memories he was going to re-create for the people who'd read the book."
Similar collections just can't be found in local libraries, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the new Tampa Bay History Center.
"The neighborhood that his pictures cover and the subjects that his pictures cover are really great, and some of them are really one-of-a-kind pictures," he said. "The pictures that are in John's book come kind of after those big photography firms had already closed."
For Cinchett, the end of the yearlong process doesn't just conclude a crash course in interviewing, researching and fact checking he verified buildings' addresses and chatted with locals to write photo captions and chapter introductions. Instead, it begins a tradition with a new generation of Tampa residents.
"It's about sharing the memories," he said. "I wish I would have had more room."
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