Tillie of Asbury Park: Who owns the iconic face of the resurgent city?

June 12, 2018

Ron Maletich purchased the Road Ad Sign Co. in Neptune in 1985 and promptly began to clean house, discarding the renderings of projects from long ago, ready to start anew.

When he came across a drawing of Tillie, the smiling, clown-like figure that the company designed for the facade of the famed Palace Amusements in Asbury Park some 30 years earlier, he didn’t think twice.

Ron Maletich was the last owner of Road Ad Sign Co. When he was moving his company to the use of computers in their work, the company threw out many of the Tracings that were used in the past to create the signs. One of these tracings were of Tillie, which the company's artists created.

“We threw him out,” Maletich said. “Today I always say, ‘You know what? If we were smart, we would have protected it because now it’s all over the place and maybe we could have retired.'”

Tillie lives. He is staking his claim as the unofficial mascot of Asbury Park, grinning his way onto T-shirts, mugs, pajamas and more with a message that teeters between innocence and sin.

Tillie’s popularity can be seen up and down the Shore. He is the face behind the newly minted Tillie’s Boardwalk Mall in Wildwood. He is on the sign in front of Tattoo Tony’s Under My Skin tattoo parlor in Atlantic Highlands. He is recreated on the outside wall of T&T Automotive Service in Red Bank.

But Tillie has become a merchandising marvel for Asbury Park alone, giving the city an iconic face that from a marketing perspective is hard to match. And he is attracting entrepreneurs cashing in on his good name.

His name and origin are explained in the video below. You can also see the condition of the Palace Amusements Tillie, saved from demolition in 2004.

Walking away with all of Tillie’s royalties? No one. In fact, Tillie has risen from the dumpster at Road Ad Sign Co. to become one of the Jersey Shore’s most recognizable images without a cent going to its creator.

It prompted the Asbury Park Press to wonder: How did that happen? And who owns Tillie, anyway?

The trail begins with an image that has been a mirror for Asbury Park, its residents and its visitors. It has been muddied by time. It is crowded with artists and entrepreneurs who have staked their own legal claims, only to see them crumble in the complicated world of intellectual property law.

Yet even if Tillie’s rightful owners showed up with ironclad proof, they likely would encounter an unhappy public that long has believed he belongs to everyone.

“It’s not a love for a face or anything,” Judy Feinstein, 83, of Monmouth Beach, said, manning the floor one day last spring at Flying Saucers, an antique store in Asbury Park that sells Tillie items.

“It’s the memories of going on the Steeplechase, going on the merry-go-round, going on the Ferris wheel when they were young,” she said. “I think eventually it will be a little obsolete, but the story of it, it’s like anything else that comes with a story. And there’s a story to Tillie.”

Maletich could have a case. He is the last owner of Road Ad Sign Co., the company that was hired in the mid-1950s to paint a mural on the expanding Palace Amusements.

Originally from Fair Lawn in Bergen County, Maletich grew up in the sign business, learning the trade from his father.

2013 The "Tillie" head over the Wonder Bar is shown in the foreground with the Paramount Theater on the Asbury Park boardwalk at right.

When Road Ad was put up for sale, Maletich jumped at the idea of living at the Shore. He purchased the business from Richard Slavin, the company’s third-generation owner, and moved to Manasquan with his wife and three children.

By then, Road Ad had moved from Asbury Park to Neptune. Maletich renamed the company Sign Ad. He cleaned out the archives. And he continued to work with Slavin, focusing on a new market: Atlantic City’s casinos.

The idea that Tillie had any value didn’t cross his mind.

“I’m telling you, back then, nobody thought anything of it,” Maletich said. “We didn’t think it would become the symbol of Asbury Park. If we did, we would have copyrighted it. We would have copyrighted the face. Believe me, I tell people the story all the time and say, ‘If I had half a brain, I would have copyrighted Tillie.’ It’s all over the place.”

Tillie is spiffy. He has black hair parted straight down the middle with handlebar curls. He has sparkling blue eyes and a red-lipped, toothy grin. He looks like he just ate a cherry-flavored snow cone that was so good it left him loopy for the rest of time.

Tillie — or a toothier version of him — first appeared in the city around the turn of the th century, when George C. Tilyou, a showman who owned Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, expanded to Asbury Park and Atlantic City, said Don Stine, president of the Asbury Park Historical Society.

Tilyou used a portrait of a “funny face” as the park’s logo. And it was painted on the Asbury Park location on the corner of Ocean and Second avenues, just north of where the Stone Pony stands today.

The original Palace Amusements artwork is in storage and overseen by Madison Marquette, the company that is redeveloping Asbury Park’s waterfront.

But copies abound. He looms like a beacon on the side of the Wonder Bar on Ocean Avenue, looking over the courtyard where patrons bring their dogs for “Yappy Hour.” He is on pillows, buttons and hats. He’s on key chains, scarfs and beach bags. He’s on coffee mugs, postcards and computer mouse pads.

Gail Scarpa was shopping in Convention Hall in Asbury Park with her sister, Jackie Mann, on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. She bought a Tillie towel and a Tillie mug, along with a Tillie magnet to replace an old Tillie sticker that was peeling off the back of her car.

The image is instantly recognized, she said, even when she travels to a house she owns in the Poconos.

“I’m worried someone is going to steal it,” Scarpa, 55, of Ocean Township, said of the magnet.

Tillie’s own popularity traces the history of the city.

Asbury Park was a tourist destination to beach-seeking visitors in the early 1900s. It was a gathering place for baby boomer teenagers coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s. It fell into disrepair after the riots in the 1970s. And it is surging in the 2010s.

Tillie has been there through it all — with a priceless boost from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, which featured him in a photo and on tour T-shirts in 1973. See the story and documentary about the legend of Tillie below.

Scott Hamm and Gene Mignola moved to Asbury Park in the late 2000s, when the city was showing glimpses of an economic recovery. They opened Shelter Home, a design and gift store on Cookman Avenue.

Trying to sell an item that was uniquely Asbury Park, they created a series of four Tillie magnets, each one a different color, Hamm said.

The magnets sold modestly. But they saw enough promise in the city to expand. They opened the Fun House, a gift shop in Convention Hall, in 2010. And they began making more Tillie-themed merchandise from the back of Shelter Home.

Asbury Park was reclaiming its place with visitors as a summer hot spot, and Tillie was catching on.

While Hamm wouldn’t reveal figures, he said Tillie sales are neck-and-neck with items that have “Greetings from Asbury Park” — another branding gem that Springsteen can take credit for — stamped on them.

“It’s funny because when we first started doing Tillie things, half the people would be like, ‘Oh, Tillie is scary,'” Hamm said. “Now we don’t get that as much. We still get some of that, but people love Tillie.”

Tillie was the rare logo that told a story of a place and its people in one image, and he was becoming a marketing machine.

Ryan Leonard has had a copyright on the Tillie design since 2012, possibly giving him a say in how it is used for commercial purposes. Asbury Park, New Jersey. Tuesday, May 8, 2018. David Gard /Correspondent

Several Shore artists or entrepreneurs found inspiration — and potentially dollar signs — in him, and they took legal steps to protect their designs. Among them:

  • Steve Roma, the chairman of Jersey Strong, obtained a registered trademark in 2013 to use Tillie as a logo for his fitness chain’s charitable foundation.
  • Joseph Borzotta, an Asbury Park artist, obtained a copyright registration in 2008 for an image he designed of Tillie on the bodies of characters from the television show South Park.
  • And Ryan Leonard, a Neptune resident and owner of New Jersey’s Finest, an apparel business, obtained a copyright registration in 2012 for what looks like the original Tillie, along with other Tillie-related images that he created.

Leonard, 31, of Neptune, is such a fan of the character that when he returned to the Shore after serving in Iraq, he got a tattoo on his left arm of Tillie in the shape of New Jersey.

“Asbury was a monster back in the day. Went to (pieces). And now it’s coming back.” Leonard said. “To me, I just remember driving by before they tore it down. I remember saying, ‘Oh, it’s cool. It’s a landmark.’ I was, like, why didn’t anyone ever own it?”

If Leonard wanted to collect royalties from the original Tillie image, though, he could run into obstacles.

Kurt Anderson, an intellectual property lawyer with Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla in Middletown, looked at the Tillie case for the Asbury Park Press.

The law allows copyright holders to stop others from making copies of their original work. Copyright goes into effect the moment the work was created. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t need to be registered to exist, although registering it gives extra legal protection to the artist. For example, you need a registered copyright to sue for infringement.

Trademarks allow businesses to stop competitors from using images that would confuse consumers.

Tillie’s story makes him ripe for a free-for-all.

He was created under the rules before the Copyright Act of 1976 was passed, when the law protected the image not from the moment it was created, but from the moment it was registered or published, Anderson said.

There are several scenarios under which the copyright in Tillie could survive, Anderson said, including one that protects it for 120 years, or until the mid-2070s.

Tillie today could be a winning lottery ticket. But for who?

Anderson laid out four questions that led the Asbury Park Press to Road Ad Sign Co. and its lineage that ended with Maletich.

Was Tillie created by an employee of the company rather than an independent contractor? Yes.

Was Maletich the sole owner of the company when it closed, and were there no other creditors? Yes.

Was Tillie an original image painted by Road Ad? Perhaps. It bore a resemblance to Tilyou’s funny face. But Leslie Worth Thomas, Road Ad’s artist who designed Tillie for the Palace, told the Asbury Park Press in a 1998 interview that he couldn’t remember where the idea for Tillie originated; he had designed so many images.

Thomas died in 2003 at the age of 90.

Ron Maletich was the last owner of Road Ad Sign Co. When he was moving his company to the use of computers in their work, the company threw out many of the Tracings that were used in the past to create the signs. One of these tracings were of Tillie, which the company's artists created.

Finally, did Road Ad assign the copyright of Tillie to the Palace or anyone else, launching it on a different path? It’s not clear.

Richard Slavin, 71, of Ocean Township, who sold the company to Maletich, said the company would have given ownership of the drawings to its customers.

“We had a legal disclaimer on our designs and our blueprints, and that disclaimer said the design was the property of Road Ad Service, until purchased,” he said in an interview. “Once they purchased the sign, it’s theirs.”

“We designed it, we manufactured it, we installed it, we serviced it, but we don’t have any legal rights to the ownership anymore because they bought it,” he said. “Now, how that works in a court of law? I’m not a lawyer.”

Anderson, however, said selling a copy of the image to a customer doesn’t mean it gave up the copyright. And Slavin said he no longer has the legal documents, noting that Road Ad’s Tillie was created more than 60 years ago.

Who owns Tillie?

“It’s a mess,” Anderson said. “You could say as a business person, ‘I’ll take that chance. I’ve done enough research to say this is an absolute mess.’ The likelihood that someone is going to come forward and say conclusively they have evidence of their ownership in the copyright in Tillie and it still exists feels pretty darn small, doesn’t it? Feels like it would be hard to do.”

Maletich closed the sign company in 2011. His main customer base, Atlantic City’s casinos, was foundering in the wake of new gaming competition in neighboring states.

He took a job at Eastern Sign Tech, whose signs appear at the Wachovia Center and other sports venues in Philadelphia. And he’s back in Atlantic City, overseeing signage for new casinos that are opening this summer.

Maletich met the Asbury Park Press at the boardwalk one day last week, near the parking lot where the Palace once stood.

And he walked, from Jane’s on the boardwalk in Ocean Grove, where Tillie caps sell for $8.99, to the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, where employees wearing Tillie T-shirts scrambled to eject a patron who brought a bird to Yappy Hour.

Over his shoulder was Tillie on the bar’s facade, smiling on the chaos that was unfolding below.

“It’s not mine,” Maletich said. “It’s part of the community. You can’t take it back.”


Original Article: https://www.app.com/story/money/business/main-street/2018/06/12/tillie-asbury-park-who-owns/437474002/