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Meet the man who hand-painted hundreds of signs at Disneyland




Patrick Smith demonstrates the use of a mahlstick. Painters use them to steady and support their painting hand.
Patrick Smith demonstrates the use of a mahlstick. Painters use them to steady and support their painting hand.
Alana Rinicella/KPCC
Patrick Smith demonstrates the use of a mahlstick. Painters use them to steady and support their painting hand.
An up-close look at one of Patrick Smith's current projects, hand-lettered in gold leaf.
Alana Rinicella/KPCC
Patrick Smith demonstrates the use of a mahlstick. Painters use them to steady and support their painting hand.
A peak at Patrick Smith's workspace, where he drafts the designs and layouts for his signs.
Alana Rinicella/KPCC
Patrick Smith demonstrates the use of a mahlstick. Painters use them to steady and support their painting hand.
In his garage, Patrick Smith paints signs for various local businesses.
Alana Rinicella/KPCC
Patrick Smith demonstrates the use of a mahlstick. Painters use them to steady and support their painting hand.
Patrick Smith's sign kit, which he takes on every job. On the outside are signatures from other sign painters.
Alana Rinicella/KPCC
Patrick Smith demonstrates the use of a mahlstick. Painters use them to steady and support their painting hand.
Inside Patrick Smith's sign kit.
Alana Rinicella/KPCC


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Take a walk through Disneyland and you'll find a variety of signs. From the rustic posts in Frontierland to the hometown charm of Main Street, each sign is different. For seven years, it was Patrick Smith's job to guide visitors through Disneyland — as a sign painter. You probably never saw him, but his work welcomed you into the park.

Patrick's career in sign painting began with a "Speedball" lettering book. He later majored in drafting in college, learning how to make the drawings used in the design and construction of buildings. 

(Ross F. George's Speedball Text Book, a periodical manual containing lettering samples.)

At the height of the Vietnam War, Patrick was drafted into the army. "I knew that my chances of survival were kind of low," he says. "But at the same time, I accepted my fate and when I got to Vietnam, I was actually held back on a temporary basis at the 22nd Replacement Battalion."

This intervention of fate gave Patrick his first job as a sign painter. "The sergeant had asked if anybody could do drafting," he says. "Nobody volunteered, but when they picked me for KP, I went over to the guy and said, 'Hey, I'm your man for the drafting job.'"

The Army Post Office became his first sign shop. Following the war, Patrick worked independently. He roamed around California and operated his own traveling sign shop. 

After settling in Rancho Cucamonga, Patrick learned of a job opening as Disneyland's Senior Sign Painter. "As a boy, I had always wanted to work for Walt Disney," he says. "I think every kid that grew up in that era that was into art had that kind of a thought. It was kind of like a dream come true for me to go there for work."

 

"It was Walt Disney who wanted a sign shop at the park — no ifs, ands, or buts," says Patrick. Main Street was inspired by Disney's Missouri hometown, where all the storefronts had homemade signs.

Working behind the scenes might destroy the magic for some, but not Patrick. "It enhanced the magic, I will say that. I don't think there's a place in Disneyland that I haven't been."
 
At Disneyland, Patrick repaired a phony dentistry sign on Center Street and lettered new ones above Main Street. A job hand-lettering some basketballs took him inside the Matterhorn. "There's a basketball court in the Matterhorn and I actually have signed my name on one of the beams in there. "
 
 
"There's a whole psychology to fonts," he explains. "I mean, we know this because Coca-Cola has a font they've made a trademark and that's all they have to have. They could even put another word there and the first thing you're gonna see is Coca-Cola."
 
Patrick left Disneyland in 2007 and now works out of his house in Orange, California. The freedom to move around was what first drew him to sign painting. "That was one of the things I really thought about it: 'I can go anyplace. I don't have to stay here. I can go, I can make a living, wander around, support my family and myself — and this is a great thing.'"
 
To see more of Patrick's work or to hire him — he's always looking for work — check out his website.