Look, people of SouthCoast, I know how much you all revere (get it?) New Bedford’s famous Paul Revere sign. A caller on my radio show even suggested recently that the city should use some of the American Rescue Plan Act funding to put it back on the Interstate 195 side.
Well, sorry to tell you, but the sign is in the hands of a private collector now, Dave Waller. Waller owns several neon signs, including the largest neon sign in Massachusetts history.
No, not Paul Revere. It is simply a man on horseback, even though he played an important role in the history of our country.
No, the largest neon sign in Massachusetts history was a giant waving chicken.
Topsy the Chicken has been standing outside Fontaine’s in West Roxbury since 1952. According to the Rose Kennedy Greenway Facebook Page, George Fontaine was very proud of the bird, which he designed himself. He and his wife Helen made Fontaine’s one of the most popular restaurants in the Boston area, until it closed in 2004. Topsy was one of the last bustling neon signs in the area when it was finally dismantled in 2005.
Waller took possession of the Topsy sign. In 2018, an installation from his collection of neon signs was displayed along the Rose Kennedy Parkway.
A number of people at the time called Fontaine’s “Topsy’s”, including my own grandmother. Were they really using the neon chicken name rather than the family that owned and operated the restaurant? I don’t know what the story is there, nor did I find much of a story about Topsy’s nickname for the chicken.
What I do know, however, is that Fontaine’s had one of the best fried chickens I have ever had in my life. To this day, a number of restaurants still claim to use the Fontaine’s recipe for their own fried chicken, but online reviews seem to suggest they’re close too, but no cigar.
There was something special about making the trip to the West Roxbury/Dedham line, driving down Route 1 to the VFW promenade and watching the Topsy skyline rise in the distance. Of course, you’d still want to extend your dinner as long as you could at Fontaine – not a hard thing to do, given that sometimes the wait to get in was as long as two hours – just so you could see Topsy in all her neon glory once the sun goes down.
Fontaine’s also did a bustling take-out business in addition to its sit-down dining. I have memories of my dad grabbing a bucket of chicken for us kids as a picnic at a nearby park. Plus, as delicious as their fried chicken was, their buns were equally legendary. All the people who are so excited about Texas Roadhouse rollers have obviously never been to Fontaine.
Yes, the Paul Revere sign was a great symbol for New Bedford and welcomed people to the whaling town for generations. There’s no way, though, that a guy on a galloping horse could ever outrun Topsy, the apron-wearing, wave-waving neon chicken forever.