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Wednesday, September 3, 2008
SIGNING ON


Jesus saves, but he can't get Rollen Stewart out of jail.

If the students of Virginia—banished to an expression-muted and sign-free existence—can take solace in anything, perhaps they should in the life of Rollen Stewart. Stewart, of course, is the most famous sign-holder of them all, a man who traveled the country dutifully (and crazily) for years, popping up on TV screens as the man with the rainbow wig holding up the John 3:16 sign. Yeah, that guy. Stewart created the concept after years holed away on a mountain ranch in Washington, where he grew marijuana and watched a lot of television. (He also tried to grow the worlds longest mustache.) Under the spell of a TV preacher, he ultimately decided to become a game day promoter for the Lord, debuting his wacky look at the 1977 NBA Finals. He'd travel around the country, living on donations, and try to hit as many marquee events as possible. There, he'd station himself behind goalposts, home plate or in any other spot a camera couldn't possibly avoid him. For a time, his "John 3:16" and crazy rainbow wig sign couldn't be missed.

Producers, announcers and fans knew him as Rainbow Man and from the late 70's into the 80's, he was a pseudo-celebrity. The TV folks had mixed feelings on Stewart. They grasped the idea that if Stewart showed up holding his sign it actually legitimized the event, but eventually, they came to despise him because he'd ruin a lot of good shots. Fans and viewers, on the other hand, thought of Stewart as an icon. He eventually landed a Budweiser commercial and inspired an SNL skit.

Unfortunately, Stewart's craziness couldn't be forever channeled into ballpark evangelism. Today, Stewart is bound by prison signage. After taking a chambermaid hostage in 1992 at a California hotel—he believed the rapture was coming in 6 days—he also threatened to shoot airplanes taking off nearby. Ultimately, he landed three consecutive life sentences, and still hasn't been paroled. Unless he lands a spot in an updated incarnation of The Longest Yard, his sign days are behind him.
The movement, it lives.
Other, more recent moments in sign language:

The Fire Millen Movement: Alive and well. At a hockey game. In California! Johnny Damon Returns to Boston as a Yankee: Now serialized in t-shirt form. *Barry Bonds: Has one person ever inspired more signs? (That includes the always importantbacklash-to-the-backlash signs.) Annals of Cleverness: Hard to top. Wait. Weight Jokes Never Die: They just take new, somewhat disturbing form. The "You'll Be Workin' For Us Someday" Smart College Standby: Damn nerds.

Anti-New York Moments: Hometown fans respond to the Yankee invasion. Explicit Suggestions Department: Whatever happened to a simple marriage request?

Storyteller Edition: Wade Boggs once drank sixty-four beers on a cross country flight. Says it right there.

Coack K and The Count: No man, regardless of greatness, is immune to sign parody.

Signs in Society Gang Signs: Honestly, who can't spell out "Bloods" with their fingers? If you want to know where you can use them, make sure to trust a handy neighborhood gang territory website! Call Signs: "No no … there's two O's in Goose." Sign Language: Created so gangs could instigate meaningless gun battles with eachother. Has some other uses. Street Signs: You need to get only 7 of 13 correct to pass a driving test. Seems about right.

Musically Ranked!

1. "Signs" - Five Man Electrical Band Defining Cut: "The sign said that you got to have a membership card to get inside / Ugh!"

2. "The Sign" - Ace of Base Defining Cut: "No one's gonna drag you up / To get into the light where you belong"

3. "It's a Sign of the Times" - Petula Clark Defining Cut: "But when I hold your hand / I know you couldn't be the way you used to be!"

4. "Warning Sign" - Coldplay Defining Cut: "I missed the good part then I realized / I started looking and the bubble burst.

5. "Signs" - Beyonce Defining Cut: "I was in love with a Sagittarius he blew my mind / He also had a flip side too much like a Gemini" Honorable Mention: "Stop Sign" - ABS Defining Cut: "Oh no check the flow / You ready with the base / Let's go / My sound abstract / Cut the loop and bring the / beat back"

Beat back, indeed.

TO READ RICK REILLY'S COLUMN ON THE BANNING OF SIGNS, CLICK HERE.