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By the early 1990s, big things were happening for the Magliozzis’ little radio show.
“Car Talk,” the call-in program the Cambridge brothers launched on WBUR in 1977, had gone national, and their blend of good-natured humor and expert advice on car troubles was garnering attention far beyond Boston.
So they wanted to look the part — sort of.
“My brother and [producer Doug Berman] thought we needed a pricey office in Harvard Square to show that we were a real, serious entity,” said Ray Magliozzi, who co-hosted the show with his brother, Tom, for 35 years. “We knew we weren’t, but we wanted to at least make people think we were.”
In 1992, the same year they won a prestigious Peabody Award, they leased space on the third floor of 5 John F. Kennedy Street, overlooking the square; set up a table and a handful of folding chairs; and established the “Car Talk” global headquarters.
Among the first orders of business, of course, was cracking a good joke. For its window, they hired someone to install authentic gold-leaf lettering like you’d find outside a respectable law firm. But instead of using their own names, or that of their popular program, they had a lawyer pun spelled out: “Dewey, Cheetham & Howe.”
It’s been there ever since.
In its many years watching over the eclectic neighborhood, the sign has become one of the city’s most treasured, if unusual, landmarks. In case there was any doubt about its historic significance, the sign most recently survived extensive renovations in the building where it’s long held court, after city officials mandated that it be preserved.
Work on the property finished last year, and retail tenants have moved in, including a soon-to-open Union Square Donuts outpost. As Harvard Square continues to rapidly change, the sign — perhaps the world’s most famous joke written in hand-laid gold letters — will remain there indefinitely.
“Car Talk” fans will recognize the wordplay on the window as part of a long-running bit on the show, when listeners were told to submit answers to weekly “Puzzler” questions via letters addressed to the fictional law firm. It was one of countless other groan-inducing and name-based puns the brothers would rattle off at the end of each show.
While they can’t take credit for the joke on the sign — Magliozzi admits they lifted it from “The Three Stooges” — the brothers may have gotten more mileage from it than the comedic trio ever did.
Magliozzi and Berman still remember the day the sign was put up. While the installer, an older man, worked quietly at the window, the Magliozzis and Berman were putting together a newspaper column responding to a reader who’d been swindled by a car insurance salesmen. They were loudly ranting about the insurance industry when they heard the man clear his throat.
“This old guy got off his little stepladder and he turned to us and with a quavering voice said, ‘You know, my brother was an insurance agent,’” Magliozzi recalled. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve insulted this guy and his family!’ And in the next breath, he said, ‘And he screwed everybody!’”
They had no idea just how long the man’s handiwork would remain in its perch atop the square.
“We didn’t even know how long the show was going to last on NPR,” Magliozzi said. “But they foolishly kept renewing our contract.”
They did have an inkling that the sign would make an impression on people who spotted it from the street, whether they knew about the show or not.
“We did hope it would be a landmark of sorts,” said Berman. “Not like the Widener Library, but something fun. A reminder not to take life too seriously.”
It certainly generated laughs along the way.
Magliozzi said a man and his girlfriend knocked on the office door once to inquire about the name of the supposed firm, and whether they knew that when spoken out loud it made them sound like crooks.
The Magliozzi brothers and Berman played along, pretending they were actually attorneys, and insisting that the combination of surnames “had a nice flow to it.”
The man “had a bewildered look on his face, Magliozzi said, and as he was closing the door, “I could hear him say to his girlfriend, ‘What a bunch of dopes!’ And he was right!”
The office was never anything fancy. A small staff worked there at a couple of desks editing, receiving mail, and sending out demo tapes.
The brothers recorded the show at Boston’s WBUR radio station, but would swing by to write their syndicated column — or host late-night poker games while puffing cigars.
To “Car Talk” fans, meanwhile, the sign became part of the lore of the show, which at its height played on more than 600 public radio stations. Some would even pop in to say hello.
“They’d all ask the same thing: ‘Is this really Car Talk Plaza?’,” Berman said. “And we’d apologize and say, ‘Yeah, this is it. Pretty shabby, huh?’”
Things are a lot less shabby now. In the recent renovation of the building, the cigar smoke-inflected office and the floor it sat on were removed. The window now sits in the second-story wall above a sparkling new yoga studio in a rock climbing gym.
“I’ll have to visit them someday,” said Magliozzi, when told about the current tenant. “Maybe I’ll get a free class.”
It wasn’t always a sure thing it would remain in its place. There were rumors — never confirmed — that a prior owner had planned to remove the sign, and put it on display in a New York office.
But the city would never allow such a thing, said Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.
The sign was preserved as part of a years-long approval process that included around 25 hours of public commentary. While plenty of specifics were weighed, Sullivan said, the sign’s status was never up for debate.
“It’s a character-defining feature of that building,” he said.
Many tourists come specifically to see it, said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.
Recently, she met two women from North Carolina who told her it was on their “bucket list” to have their photo taken in front of the sign.
Its survival sends an important message that the city is capable of preserving its cultural touchstones, Jillson said — even, or perhaps especially, the quirkiest ones.
“While there’s a lot of change going on in Harvard Square, the thoughtful discussion with input from the public, particularly around what that window means to people, is all part of a much bigger discussion,” she said.
It isn’t the only “Car Talk” landmark in Harvard Square. A plaque honoring Tom Magliozzi, who died in 2014, was installed in Brattle Square in 2019.
Magliozzi and Berman, meanwhile, are just pleased, and maybe a little surprised, that people can still get a kick out of their tongue-in-cheek signage.
“We didn’t think we were building our legacy or anything like that. That was the farthest thing from our minds,” Magliozzi said. “We were just really having some laughs.”