Thomas Reitter retouched the Park Street rooster mural each decade, adding the year of the latest touch-up below his signature. Reitter poses with the mural during the 2010 touch-up. (COURTESY RON TRAVISANO)
Thomas J. Reitter, the artist behind the much-loved rooster mural on Montclair’s Park Street, died Feb. 5 at the age of 71.
Reitter, born May 23, 1950 in Teaneck, grew up in Chatham, where he attended Chatham High School before leaving town to attend the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. He lived in Chatham until moving to Rahway in 1983, but returned to the borough with wife Frances “Fran” Benson in 1991.
Art was part of Reitter’s persona, Barb and Rob Johnston, longtime friends of Reitter’s said. The Johnstons have known Reitter and Benson for more than 40 years.
“[His creativity] extended to all he did including his cooking, his attire, his Halloween costumes, his greeting cards, his sense of humor, his gardening and especially his art,” the Johnstons said in an email to Montclair Local.
Reitter was a fine arts artist who painted in oils and watercolor, according to his obituary, as published by William A. Bradley and Son Funeral Home. His work is “magical, full of realism and fantasy intertwined,” the obituary says.
In 1980, Paul Zimmerman wanted a big rooster to reside on the building he owned at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Park Street. When the morning sun cast its light on the rooster, it would “crow and wake up the town,” he told Montclair Local. Zimmerman connected with Reitter, and the mural was created, inspired by the work of Pablo Picasso.
However, the rooster was not immediately a hit in Montclair, Zimmerman said. The Township Council at the time demanded the mural be removed, arguing that the rooster was just an advertisement for The Chicken Basket, the chicken restaurant that then resided in the building. Zimmerman began to receive fines from the township.
But after an ABC7 Eyewitness News story and support from the Montclair Art Museum, the township withdrew the fines and the council agreed the mural could stay, as long as Zimemrman maintained it, he said.
So about every 10 years — in 1992, 2001, 2010 and 2019 — Reitter returned to the Park Street wall with his ladder and paintbrushes, adding splashes of bright color and crisp edges to the decade-faded mural. The mural currently resides between Sweet Kitchen and Puebla de Noche.
“He was a real artist, very kind, dependable and talented,” Zimmerman said.
Through the mural, Reitter’s memory lives on, as his art continues to be cherished by the Montclair community, his niece Kim Amon Picciano said.
“He was a kind, peaceful, creative person in everything he did, from his clothes [to] his relationships to his art,” Picciano said. “Our loss is one so very great.”
Zimmerman plans to hire a new artist to help maintain Reitter’s work in coming years, he said.
Reitter also loved to be in nature, going fishing and camping with friends and spending time gardening.
“When Thom visited, he always brought seeds, plants, flowers and was the gardening go-to-guy for advice,” the Johnstons said in their email. “His garden was magnificent, understated and completely natural. His plantings brought in the birds to complement the landscape.”
If he wore a hat, it was adorned with feathers he found, the Johnstons said. If he wore a pin, it was in the image of an element of nature. His fragrance was patchouli, they said.
One spot that Reitter and Benson loved most was Martha’s Vineyard, where the two met in 1976. They married there in 1991 and vacationed there every year since, according to the Johnstons.
“He lived his life with kindness, sensitivity to others and always with a creative flair,” the Johnstons said. “Thom’s art will help all to keep his memory alive.”
Donations in Reitter’s memory may be made to the Raptor Trust Bird Rehabilitation and Education Center in Millington, according to his obituary.
A memorial gathering was held at the William A. Bradley and Son Funeral Home Sunday.
Montclair Local asked community members to share their favorite photos with the rooster mural. The following images were submitted:
A previous version of this story said Reitter and Benson were married in 1976.