Topsy the neon chicken was a source of enormous pride for George Fontaine, who sketched the bird’s design at his kitchen table in 1952. Fontaine wanted to celebrate his purchase of the restaurant which he had been managing for a local chain since returning from military service in World War II. (Fontaine, who served under his given name of George Fotonakes, was held as a prisoner of war after being shot down in France). When the Winthrop-born serviceman finally purchased the restaurant on the West Roxbury-Dedham line, it was the fulfillment of his long-held dream of owning his own restaurant. Together, George and his wife Helen Fontaine expanded to 160 seats, serving fried chicken, prime rib and pot pie to hundreds of locals each day.
As a veteran, Fontaine would have been eligible for start-up money through the business assistance program of the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (better-known as the GI Bill). Whether or not the Fontaines took advantage of GI Bill funding to start their restaurant, there is no question that the success of their joint venture rested on a different provision of the same legislation: both West Roxbury and Dedham swelled with baby-boom families in the 1950s. Many of these families took advantage of the GI Bill’s mortgage guarantee program to finance the purchase of their houses. Suburban prosperity, and the disposable income which came to the new middle class, was a key part of George and Helen Fontaine’s success. Built in the right place at the right time, their restaurant would serve as a neighborhood hub for nearly sixty years.
Mounted on an angular pylon designed to resemble a streetlight, the double-sided Fontaine’s sign became a distinctive landmark in the suburban landscape. The restaurant’s sign incorporated three different types of light in its signage – as well as the same number of typefaces in its lettering – but only Topsy the chicken was illuminated in neon. (The streetlight initially used incandescent light; the horizontal panel which bore the Fontaine’s name was backlit fluorescent). The sign was especially eye-catching at night, when the chicken’s animated flapping-wing effect came fully to life, beckoning customers inside. George and Helen Fontaine both took pride in the individuality of their restaurant, advertising Fontaine’s as an alternative to “corporate cookie-cutter” competitors. Like many postwar entrepreneurs, George and Helen Fontaine infused their familiar recipes with just enough novelty to create a successful business enterprise; the recipe for Fontaine’s fried chicken was much sought-after but never duplicated.
When Fontaine’s closed in 2004, it marked the end of an era in more than one way. George and Helen had successfully catered to the baby boom generation’s culinary tastes and needs. Topsy the chicken, who was still in operation when the restaurant closed, was one of the last animated neon signs in greater Boston. Today, Kenmore Square’s CITGO sign, the North End’s La Cantina and the Theater District’s Paramount are some remaining examples of this once-popular form of signage.