Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Saved from the Junk Yard

The Museum of Modern Art (MONA), a non profit Art museum in Los Angeles, is launching a fundraising campaign to restore one of the neon dragons formerly on the iconic marquee at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  For 43 years these neon dragons graced the theaters marquee with their glowing presence, which  is now the site of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

According to MONA, in 2001, the theater's owners had planned to remove the iconic neon dragons and donate them to the museum. However, when the time came, the owners changed their mind and decided to move them to an outdoor storage yard. Although the marquees were in perfect, working condition when they were removed from the Chinese Theater, neglect took a heavy toll. For 6 years the signs sat ravaged by the elements and souvenir hunters. The owners decided to junk the dragons in 2007, but MONA officials found out about the signs' impending disposal, and were able to save them from heading to the dump.

Today, MONA has retained the one of the dragons and gifted the other to another local non-profit institution. The museum's goal  is to restore their dragon to its former glory in time to greet visitors at the grand opening of their new facility in Glendale in 2015. With the help of the public Mona hopes to raise the funds needed to restore the neon sign.
The restoration will entail three phases: the first will involve a thorough cleaning and stripping of rust and old paint off the 40 foot sign and then priming and repainting; the second requires new neon glass units fabrication by a skilled tubebender of the sign's 65 glass units in the original colors; and, the final phase includes recreation of the original animation sequence, wiring and the metal framework that will support the exhibit. The 1974 Mel Brooks classic "Blazing Saddles" will be used to view the animation of the neon tubing on the dragon and will help our restorers recreate the sequencing.
For more information about the campaign and to support the restoration, contact MONA

Monday, January 20, 2014

Westinghouse Animated Neon Sign

Cities will often have a defining feature that people around the world (or at least in the region) associate with the location. In Paris, it is the Eiffel Tower. Who doesn’t think of Big Ben when London somehow enters the conversation? New York has the Empire State Building and Chicago has the Sears Towers (or whatever they are called now).
For years, Pittsburgh was only thought of as a steel town, dirty from the years of soot collected by belching coal fired furnaces. The city was picturesque in some ways, but the industry detracted from that. Enter the sign makers for the Westinghouse Electric Supply Company (WESCO).
The Wesco building needed a new sign. The old one was worn from 20 years of wind and storm, so the corporate heads at Westinghouse decided they needed a new sign that would create a new image. After several ideas were flushed, they came up with the idea of a sign that displayed the Westinghouse circled “W” in a computer aided neon display.
The sign had nine, 17 foot tall neon W’s lined up in a vertical row. Because of the lighting divisions within each W (each individual W was made of ten separate sections), there were many different lighting configurations that could occur on the sign. The 3000 feet of neon tubing filled with Argon to give it the blue color. It was able to be lit in 120 different configurations, controlled by a computer. The sign was hung and first operated in 1967. It was the first computer-controlled neon sign ever built.
Since the building stood right behind the outfield wall of Pirates Stadium and was easily visible to downtown Pittsburgh across the Alleghany River, it became a city icon. People would remember that sign and relate it to the city of Pittsburgh.
The sign has been gone now since 1998 when a new baseball stadium was constructed on the site, but its fame lives on. Now you will remember dancing W’s in the night sky of Pittsburgh and the first computer-controlled neon sign.

Friday, January 17, 2014

"Bar Ahead"... Neon Bar Sign that is!

In 1760, the intrepid explorer and hunter, Daniel Boone, demonstrated his grasp of spelling and grammar in the immortalized media of pine tree trunk. Apparently he was happy that he had gotten the animal before it got him, but he is reported to have carved “D Boone kilt a bar” into a Kentucky pine (or maybe it was an Ohio, Pennsylvania or Missouri pine). Don’t panic its not that kid of “bar” (yeah my wife didn’t think it was funny either).
So, Dan’l kilt a bar in the woods of some state (or probably a lot of them) and I have personally kilt many a brew at many a stained wood bar. I carved my name in a few tables too (Don’t tell the owner).
What is that behind every bar in the world? Why it’s the Ham’s Bear (see we’re keeping that theme going), or the Corona parrot, or even the Busch stag. Beer neon signs come in so many shapes, sizes and brilliant colors it is no wonder people have been collecting them for years.
Everyone wants a favorite lager, ale or pilsner neon sign in their rumpus room/basement/man cave. What bar mirror is complete without the glow of neon light in front of it. 
Yeah it used to be just something that said “Beer Here” or something else nondescript (I don’t know about you but that type of sign used to be enough). A neon sign showing a golden mug and some white froth is welcome to many a work weary warrior and has been enticing beer lovers for nearly a hundred years to partake of the yellow beverage; the third most popular drink in the world after water and tea.
Beer logos have a historical design tradition and are as crucial to branding and advertising, as a logo for any other product or service. The Bass Ale logo, with a red triangle, was the first trademark to be registered under the British Trade Mark Registration Act of 1875, filed as trademark no.1. All of the big names have them now. The Budweiser crown and red bow-tie, the Miller black and gold MGD, the blue ribbon behind the word Pabst, they all beckoned. Most importantly they give the overindulgent something to point at when talking became an issue near last call.
So, turn on the glowing light and chug a frosty brew in the great American tradition.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Reno's Neon Arch Still Standing

Reno may be just another city sitting next to a beautiful high desert lake to some, but to anyone who has been there since 1929 it is the “Biggest Little City in the World”.
So how did Reno get so lucky as to be distinguished by this particular moniker? The city had hosted a Transcontinental Highways Exposition three years earlier during which the arch was constructed to welcome convention goers into the city. The mayor didn't want to lose the arch after the convention left so he held a contest looking for a slogan to put up there. The result was what is emblazoned across the Reno night to this day.
But “biggest little city in the world”? What does that even mean? Reno is actually a fairly large city (the second largest in Nevada outside of the Las Vegas area), so how does it rate being “little”? Maybe what they mean is that there is more to do there than in any relatively small city in the US. That would make more sense, but the neon sign probably wouldn't fit over main street.
Back to the topic…the reason they used neon for the sign was the consistency of light and the fact that it required much less maintenance. 1934, some residents complained about the new slogan and it was replaced with a green neon "RENO"; however, after the ensuing backlash over its removal, the slogan returned with new lettering.  In 1963, the original steel arch was replaced by 60s-style plastic panels and a rotating star. The third version (which stands today) was installed in 1987 and the incandescent bulbs retrofitted with LED in 2009.  The original arch from 1934 has moved around Reno over the years, but now stands on Lake Street, just south of the Truckee River.  It has lasted so long, close to 85 years now with few repair needs, because the message of the sign and the lighting used have been such a good fit for the city.
The city itself is no stranger to the liquid fire either. Reno has always been the step sister to the Vegas glitz, but both cities know how to use a few neon gas filled tubes to best effect. Just look at any picture of Reno since 1930 and it is filled with the bright lights that make any Nevada town glow. Neon signs have fueled the city since 1929 and that famous sign has welcomed all of her visitors.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Vegas Vic Neon Sign

What are your memories of Vegas? I didn't ask if you had been there, I asked what your memories were.
Everyone has seen Vegas; it is one of the most filmed and famed spots on the Globe. Is it the many small chapels with a coiffed, jump-suited Elvis ready to send you into wedded bliss? What about the desert and the extreme heat that greets summertime visitors (this is one people don’t find out about until they have actually been there)? Maybe you watch the TV show CSI and have some dark, seedy vision of the city filled with blood samples and obscure hair follicles. Then, of course, there are casinos. Most likely at the top of any memory of Las Vegas.
What about the casinos attracts? Well, in the old days they didn't have the technology to produce choreographed water displays (Bellagio), they had to use a lower tech method of attracting the crowd. But Vegas has always liked to do things up big. So, casino owners and designers decided to show the world how big, bold and flashy America’s adult playground could be. One of these thoughts produced the world famous icon—Vegas Vic.
He’s the 40 foot tall neon cowboy sign that welcomes people to Las Vegas that many see when they think of Sin City. He lazily leans against what use to be the old Pioneer Club, smoking a cigarette waving people into what is now a souvenir shop. The first image of Vegas Vic was created in 1947, when the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce hired a West-Marquis firm to draw visitors to Las Vegas. The company created the friendly cowboy image for a post card with the greeting "Howdy Podner". Due to the popularity of the cowboy,  the owners of the Pioneer Club commissioned a neon-sign version to be erected on Fremont street. It replaced their sign that just said Pioneer Club with the image of a horse drawn covered wagon.  He is one of the foremost demonstrations of what can be done with neon and he has been copied many times since he was first placed there in 1951, including Wendover Will erected in 1952 at the Stateline Casino and River Rick erected in 1981 at the Pioneer Hotel and Gambling Hall.
Realize that most neon signs are pretty well standard bent and colored glass tubes filled with some noble gas. Vegas Vic showed the world what could be done with the medium. Not only could a 40 foot tall authentic looking cowboy be produced, but movement could be added without damaging the tubes. The neon version was complete with a waving arm, a moving cigarette, and a recording of "Howdy Podner!" every 15 minutes. The effect the neon Vegas Vic had on the advertising world was instantaneous. After that businesses all over the world started ordering moving neon representations of their product or mascot.
Vegas Vic may be famous for welcoming people to Las Vegas, but he is also famous for ushering in a new age in neon signage.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Escort Visitors Out the Door with a Neon Exit Sign

Ever want to tell someone exactly where to go? Ever have the feeling that he or she has overstayed their welcome and needs some gentle encouragement to head for the door? You don’t want to be abrupt; you try to be polite (probably an annoying neighbor or a tipsy uncle), but they are making it difficult.
Well, there is one sign that is to the point and will deliver the message for you.
So most exit signs are not neon. They are tin boxes with some red glass behind which is a bulb. The typical exit sign is blasé and couldn’t carry the i’s dot. But, some realize that here is the opportunity for a statement. Escorting someone out the door with a neon masterpiece of design shows class and brings customers flocking back.
(Well…maybe people don’t return because of a flashy exit sign, but they should.)
The point is that we live in a world that has fallen into a non-neon mundanity (okay that’s not a word but lets think of it as a cross between mundane and insanity). Whereas creativity used to run rampant in the sign world—even the most insignificant signs are thought of as retro works of art today—now its just throw a screen up and play some video. How is that creative.
Neon is meant to be garish; to arrest the eyes, to make someone stop and consider the exit before they step through it.
As seen on the abundance of picker shows now populating the TV market (especially the History channel…what does picking have to do with history?) these simple testaments to a more creative past are going for some serious coin. Signs seem to be all the rage. People understand the value of a flashy past where people actually cared how they were told to leave the premises.
The point is old neon exit signs and other examples of this bygone era are considered retro chic and can really dress up a dull room.