8:52 PM CDT, March 26, 2013
Mike Perrone says his girlfriend doesn't quite get his attachment to the giant red lips.
This does not surprise him. She is from St. Louis.
Only someone with Chicago roots can fully grasp why a man would pay $2,800 for those lips, plus $1,052.80 for shipping.
"Everybody I talk to has a place in their heart for the Magikist sign," Perrone said on Tuesday, standing in the West Side warehouse where he keeps the sign while he figures out what on earth to do with it.
"My condo board would eat me alive if I put it on my roof," he said.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, the neon Magikist signs — most notably the three that soared above the city's expressways like gaudy red smooches in the sky — were Chicago landmarks.
Perrone, 36, remembers how the sign next to the Kennedy Expressway near Montrose Avenue used to signal the approach to downtown. At Christmastime, when he was a boy, it was even more exciting.
Every Christmas Eve, his family traveled from the Northwest Side to his mother's old Bridgeport neighborhood to visit friends. On the ride back, he knew that when he saw the neon red glow of the Magikist lips, he was almost home and it was time for Santa.
The fact that Magikist was a carpet-cleaning company did not detract from the romance.
Over the years, the Magikist company and the signs changed ownership. The giant neon lips vanished one by one. The sign along the Kennedy was the last to go, torn down in 2004, to the dismay of preservationists who valued its kitschy, exotic, vaguely erotic charm.
Perrone was so moved by the death of the last highway sign that he decided to make a T-shirt. A web designer by trade, he runs a small Internet business on the side, selling self-designed objects like pillows and tie clips that reflect Chicago history.
While researching Magikist, he discovered a surviving sign, one that once hung on the Cicero Avenue store.
Not as humongous as it expressway siblings, it was nevertheless big. Thirteen feet across, 7 feet high, weighing in somewhere more than a 1,000 pounds.
It had migrated to Santa Monica, Calif., to a gallery called Track 16.
"We got it for a song," said Sean Meredith at Track 16 when I called Tuesday, "because it was so big and unwieldy."
When the big lips arrived by truck in Santa Monica, in a shipment of other signs from the Midwest, no one at the gallery knew their place in Chicago lore.
All Meredith knew was that the sign was so dense with neon transformers — the devices that powered the illumination — that during the months it sat on the gallery's dollies, it crushed the wood and flattened the wheels.
"It's an incredible feat of chutzpah to put so much neon in one sign," Meredith said. "It scared one of my art handlers so bad he wore his motorcycle helmet while we hung it."
The lips looked great hanging outdoors in the California sun, so unlike the brutal Chicago winters the sign had known, but eventually the gallery put them up for sale on eBay. Perrone stumbled across the listing during research for his T-shirt. He couldn't resist.
"My girlfriend thought I was crazy," he said. "She has no idea of what it means to someone like me."
Getting the sign back to Chicago wasn't easy or cheap. It took four men to get it off the truck when it arrived at his friend Mike Kenny's gasket company on the West Side, the only place he could think of to store it.
"But it had made it," he said. "It had made it home."
Since then, Perrone has been trying to figure out what's next. He doesn't want it to wind up in some man cave or hokey restaurant. He contacted the Chicago History Museum but never heard back. He has thought about installing it in the loft of the tech company he just cofounded.
But he thinks it belongs in public, maybe along the Blue Line, where passersby could feel the transient thrill it stirred in him when he was a boy.
If you're interested, let him know. You can find him at magikistsign.com.
The lips are home, waiting to be loved again.
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