Herman: A bright question: Will ‘The Head’ need a new home?

March 23, 2018
Ken Herman
The fate of “The Head” that sits atop the Light Bulb Shop on Burnet Road is kind of up in the air as the store prepares to shut down. KEN HERMAN / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Since shortly after the turn of the century, he’s ceaselessly cast his gaze eastward, optimistically looking toward the sunrise that, for many, heralds the arrival of another day in Austin.

Granted, watching the sun rise over an Auto Zone on Burnet Road is not to be equated with watching the sun set over Lake Travis at the Oasis. But there he is and there he’s been, the same giant light bulb atop his head, simultaneously symbolizing there’s something cooking inside that big ol’ empty skull and that there’s a retail store below.

Originally known as Light Bulb Ed, he’s now just known as The Head, an enduring North Austin Road landmark atop the Light Bulb Shop.

As you recently read in the Statesman, the Light Bulb Shop, after four decades of helping us navigate the increasingly stupefying world of light bulbs, is about to go dark, another victim of retail disruption.

Several questions come to mind: Who’s going to help us figure out if we want those newfangled LED Zeppelin bulbs? Who’s going to tell us what to do with those CFL bulbs that seem to quickly have gone from newfangled to oldfangled? (Why the Canadian Football League made light bulbs remains a mystery to me.) And who’s going to help us make the crucial watts-to-lumens calculation?

Most importantly, what’s going to happen to The Head? If you’ve been in Austin for any reasonable length of time, you’ve seen The Head perched atop the Light Bulb Shop.

It’s never good when a local business like the Light Bulb Shop closes. But I understand the challenges faced by brick-and-mortar retail. I don’t like it, but I understand it. Why anyone would want to get everything delivered to their homes by very tall women is a mystery to me; it also might be evidence of my ignorance about Amazon.

So, taking it upon myself to speak for all of Austin, it became my duty to inquire about the fate of The Head. Turns out, just like you and me, its fate is uncertain. Here’s what we know, courtesy of Kelly McGary, who runs the store and is the daughter of its founder, Edwin McGary.

The property’s been sold. She’s unsure of what the new owners will do with it, but they did ask that The Head remain on the building.

“They know that everybody knows where the Light Bulb Shop is,” she said. “So they want to be able to keep that ability. I don’t know how long that will last because my opinion is they’re going to get really annoyed with that pretty quickly.”

That’s because she doubts that what replaces the Light Bulb Shop will be a light bulb shop and “because so many people are going to be coming in asking for light bulbs nonstop.”

Could be. And if that happens, McGary says the new owners have agreed to give The Head to the McGarys. She said she’s had a couple of offers for it, including from a private collector of iconic Austin signage.

Some history of The Head: It was created in the early 1990s by Blue Genie Art Industries and initially was posted at the Light Bulb Shop when it was at Lamar Boulevard and St. Johns Avenue.

“It was designed to (look like) my father,” Kelly McGary said. “My dad is Edwin so he (originally) was named Light Bulb Ed.”

Over the years, his look as morphed a bit. “He’s been compared to Conan O’Brien. And when we got him repainted he went through a little bit of change. And then I had to kind of have him colored back, and now he’s just kind of a conglomeration of (the work of) a couple of different painters,” Kelly McGary said.

One of the changes had some people thinking The Head looked like Barack Obama. That didn’t mesh well with Edwin McGary’s political leanings, his daughter said, acknowledging he’s not much of an Obama fan.

“That would be putting it nicely, yes sir,” she told me, recalling she had it changed before her dad saw the brief Obamaian phase.

And she’s pleased that The Head has a following and lots of people have inquired about its fate.

“It gets a lot of love,” she said.

Personally, she’d love for it to remain on the building but doubts that’s realistic. Some customers have asked if she’s going to relocate it to her home.

“I don’t think my HOA would approve of that,” she said.

You never know until you ask.