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A 'Grate' Life: Joliet sign fabricator dies at 97

As the Rialto Rialto Square Theater sits in downtown Joliet as one of the city's most treasured landmarks, the marquee that adorns the front of the theater is a memorial in its own way to the Michalak family.

Longtime Joliet resident, Steve Michalak, who grew up on the east side of Joliet, was instrumental in building the current marquee sign for the Rialto Square Theater in 1980.

The sign is a replica of the original from 1926."They wanted me to copy from the original, and what was achieved is very close,"  Michalak said during an interview two years ago.

"It was the biggest sign I ever made. I had made signs that were in pieces and you put them together, but this was all one piece, other than the top section. We had about 150 bulbs on one circuit and they used to chase, making it appear that the lights were chasing around the whole sign."

An employee of Grate Sign Company for nearly 23 years, Michalak died May 24, 2021 at Lightways Hospice in Joliet. He was 97 years old. 

In 2014, there was an attempt to replace Joiet's iconic sign  with a new, modern sign that had the ability to play video, but public outcry won and the classic marquee celebrated its 40th year on the building in 2020.

For years, many of the signs that attracted Joliet patrons to local businesses were made by Michalak. 

"I made over 300 Burger Chef signs along with Dairy Castle, Taco Bell, and Rax Roast Beef," he said. There used to be several Burger Chef signs in and around Joliet, but only those folks with close to as many birthdays as Michalak will remember them.

Two other  famous Joliet signs  that Michalak made, and that many locals and visitors remember, are the Al's Steakhouse sign on Jefferson, and the giant Paintbrush sign of the Joliet Paint Company on Republic Avenue.

His career as a sheet metal worker saw him do more work than just creating iconic signage.

"I worked many other jobs in Joliet since I was a teenager,  and had to leave Joliet Central High School to help out the family. It was at the end of my career that I worked  for Grate Signs," he said

Michalak said he really enjoyed making signs, and that included creating the design; the numerous steps to build the sign; neon tubing;  transporting the new sign to its location; and the technical electrical work to install the sign.

Michalak's wife Delores, or Sissy as everyone knew her, joined him working at the sign company, and worked on menu boards. A hearing issue prohibited Michalak from serving his country in World War II, so he took a job as a supervisor at the Navy yards in Rockdale. 

He was assigned seven German POWs and a translator to oversee that the work that was required was getting done in a timely and orderly fashion. 

It was at the Navy yards that Steve met his wife, to whom he was married to for 73 years.

As a longtime resident of Joliet, Michalak was one of the founding members to several Joliet organizations that include the Northwest Recreation Club, the Moran Athletic Club, and the Rivals Club.

Steve was very active in the clubs' bowling teams and their tournaments, and bowled into his 90s.  

He attended Club functions well into his mid-90s and enjoyed his senior status and telling members about what the clubs were like back in his time.


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