Monday, December 30, 2013

The Great White Way

Many a bright-eyed dreamer has spent years in high school productions fantasizing about New York and the heralded Broadway. The street name is simple, common and uninteresting on the surface, but mention it to any theater aficionado and visions of guys, dolls and glitzy productions come to mind.
What is it about Broadway that has fueled imaginations since vaudevillian times? Is it the promise of an artist’s dreams fulfilled? The money that comes with the fame of a star? Or is it pictures of Broadway lit up with thousands of neon lights, earning the moniker “The Great White Way”. Sure some of those lights were bulbs, but we all know that neon made Broadway what it is.
The theaters are all aglow on a typical fall evening, people are dressed in casual comfort as they make their way to the theater and production of their choice. There are so many to choose from, and many are not actually on Broadway (only four theaters are on the street, but there are many within a short distance).
The Great White Way got its name because it was one of the first streets in the United States to be lit with electricity. In the 1890’s the theaters started to get lights on their marquis, and inside, and by the turn of the century most of the theaters on the street (there used to be a lot more actually on Broadway) were lit with colorful displays.
The bulbs though could never be as inventive and fun as neon inspired lighting, so when neon lights came around Broadway was again one of the first streets to adopt the technology. Marquis were then faced with neon and color came to the Great White Way.
Now no one can imagine this scene of the great American theater city without its colorful, leading neon gateways. Showing off is just what show people do and neon allows them to do it with even more style.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Neon Glass Bending to Show Off the Gas

What did you say you wanted that neon sign to say? Alright. What size? Good. Now what type of font for the wording?
Ever bend a piece of glass in chemistry, shop or some other high school class? No? Well you missed out. Glass blowing, forming and bending is something of a lost art. The reason it is not completely lost is because there are neon glass artisans who keep the practice alive. The neon signage industry in the USA has declined in the past several decades, with the introduction of cheap foreign imports and the promotion of LED lighting by the LED industry. Cities are now concerned with preserving and restoring their antique neon signs. 
It is the wide range of colors and the ability to make a tube that can last for decades without replacement, that makes neon glass bending an art. Since these tubes require so much custom labor, they would have very little economic viability if they did not have such a long lifetime when well processed. But the master glass benders who have learned after years of trial and error how to make this very brittle material bend to their will are artists as well as skilled craftsmen.
The neon glass bender will use standardized glass tubing that conforms to the diameter and size needed. He or she creates a pattern that the customer has agreed to and, using the desired diameter of the finished product, produces a two dimensional image of the final product. This pattern will be used as a guide for the final product.
The neon glass has to be heated and cooled, cut and bent, filed and sanded to produce the final shape that the customer desires. Heated tubing is very malleable, but the craftsman has to be careful not to make a mistake and heat it too much, or allow it to cool below a certain temperature. Overheated glass will lode its shape, which can be corrected with some effort, and too cool glass will break, which cannot be fixed.
The neon glass artist diagrams the desired twists and turns and thinks about how he or she is going to get from straight tube to end piece. The final product will match the pattern and conform to the specifications (font, color, wording) ordered. It’s a craft wrapped in an art form.