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By Ruth Brown
Items that represent some of the greatest innovations in human history are proudly displayed in the halls of America’s most venerable museums: The Wright Brothers’ plane is at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., Steve Wozniak’s Apple 1 is at the Computer History Museum in California, the first telephone directory is held by the Connecticut Historical Society.
Yet the first sign to ever welcome drivers to the Borough of Kings is wasting away in a storage room of a Coney Island restaurant.
Former Borough President Sebastian Leone’s “Welcome to Brooklyn” sign — a precursor to the popular highway signs that greet and say goodbye to drivers at the entrances and exits of our borough — is languishing out the back of Gargiulo’s Italian Restaurant in Coney Island.
The former Beep passed away last month at 91, but his greatest legacy — the iconic sign that once stood on the Belt Parkway at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and featured in the opening titles of “Welcome Back, Kotter” — is in storage at the storied W. 15th eatery. Leone brought the national treasure there for a farewell party after his reign ended in 1976 and never took it with him, according to the proprietor.
“They had a retirement dinner here and it has been here since,” said Gargiulo’s co-owner Nino Russo. “I asked Sebastian if he wanted it back and he said no.”
The sign, which fetes the borough as “the fourth largest city in America” and lists Leone as the borough president, reappeared in 2010 when Russo loaned it to then-Borough President Marty Markowitz so he could put it on display in Borough Hall, but only with the understanding that the Neapolitan eatery get it back when Markowitz left his post.
Gargiulo’s has put the placard on display to the public in the past, and Russo says he still hauls it out whenever the pasta palace hosts Brooklyn-related functions, but he’s currently looking for a permanent place to show it off — maybe he’ll put it in the parking lot.
The sign’s significance goes well beyond its starring role alongside Gabe Kaplan — Leone commissioned the piece during his six-year stint as the borough’s supreme leader in the dark days of the 1970s, when most people outside Brooklyn didn’t consider it the kind of place you’d want to brag about. But the Bensonhurst-born Beep felt it was important to sing Kings County’s praises from the rooftops — or at least the Belt Parkway.
“In those days, you always had to be Brooklyn-positive,” Leone told this newspaper in 2010. “I used to say, ‘One out of every 80 people that live in America live in Brooklyn! If you consider people that were born here, worked here, and have relatives here, then one out of 10 people have some affinity for Brooklyn!’ ”
There is still some mystery around the exact provenance of the sign in Gargiulo’s — it features a red and blue star-spangled border that is not present on the one in the opening sequence of the classic sitcom. Some believe this is because it was spruced up for America’s bicentennial in 1976, others that there were two signs.
And at least one other similar “Welcome to Brooklyn” sign is out there somewhere — one that bore Leone’s successor Howard Golden’s name, and featured in the opening to the final 1979 season of “Kotter.” But Golden believes that one was created by and subsequently returned to the studio behind the show, according to one borough politico.
“They took it back when the show ended,” said Kings County Democratic establishment legend Steve Cohn, relaying Golden’s take.
Leone’s death came just as the federal government began scolding New York state for putting its own flashy “I heart N.Y.” signs on highways last month, which the Feds claim are a dangerous distraction to drivers.
But D.C. should just fuhgeddaboudit, says Marokowitz, who erected the newer eye-catching “Welcome to Brooklyn” signs reading “Believe the hype!” and “Not just a borough, an experience” during his time behind the wheel — he and Leone already proved they’re harmless displays of civic pride.
“I’m not a traffic engineer, but whether it’s Brooklyn or other places across America, I think it’s an opportunity for boosterism,” says Marokowitz.
Reach deputy editor Ruth Brown at email@example.com or by calling (718) 260–8309. Follow her at twitter.com/rbbrown.
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Former Boro Prez Leone is gone — but where is his iconic ‘Welcome to Brooklyn’ sign? : Brooklyn Daily