THE DAZZLE RETURNS : Once Controlled by Sign Trade, Neon Is Revived as Art
Inside a stiflingly hot cinder block building, a crew of shirt-less men cradle glass tubes between spouts of blue gas flame. The tubes sag in the intense heat as the men twist and bend the 4-foot lengths of glass into gentle curves and intricate squiggles.
This is the heart of the Alert-Lite Neon plant in Sunland. Here, owner Rio Lee Score and his family try to keep up with the rush of orders for everything from mundane neon store signs--"OPEN,” “VIDEOS,” “BEER"--to a glowing 6-foot-tall neon armadillo for Disney World in Florida.
“The business never intended to get this big,” Score said of the firm his father founded in 1946 and which saw annual sales double to $1 million in the past five years. “It just happened.”
Once part of a dying industry, Alert-Lite and the approximately 3,000 firms like it across the nation are cashing in on the renaissance of neon.
Storefronts once again blaze with the eye-catching tangerine, cobalt blue and emerald neon signs after spending nearly the past three decades banished from the American mainstream. And this time, neon has found its way indoors--into art galleries, discos, restaurants, offices and homes.
The veteran neon craftsmen who were able to survive have been joined by a new generation of designers and artists who regard neon not only as advertising but as an art form. However, the market has also attracted fly-by-night outfits and shoddy products--the result of public’s appetite for neon and a shortage of experienced craftsman.
Museum Aided Comeback
“The people who make neon can ask for more and there would not be any questions asked,” said Tod Swormstedt, editor of Signs of the Times, an industry magazine. “If you want a graphic, you’ll have to wait longer than you would have before.”
The Los Angeles area, home to the nation’s first permanent neon sign installed in a Wilshire Boulevard Packard dealership in 1923, has played a role in the rebirth of neon. The blaze of fanciful neon signs along trendy Melrose Avenue, the shows at the Museum of Neon Art in downtown Los Angeles and a host of neon artists have aided neon’s comeback.
Neon boosters include Hollywood film and television makers. “The movies, TV and MTV have taken neon and spread it all over the place in the 1980s,” said Lili Lakich, a neon artist and founder of the Museum of Neon Art.
“Neon was dead,” said Frank Montroy, whose City of Commerce firm has been supplying neon shops with electrical transformers, glass tubes and other materials since 1932. “All of a sudden we have had a resurgence. We have a group of yuppies who think neon is the best thing since sex.”
Those neon-crazy yuppies have kept Southern California’s neon shops and designers busy. In fact, the number of shops that make neon lighting has increased to 300 from about 100 five years ago, Montroy said.
“We get more calls on neon right now than we ever have,” said Arnie Shal, sales manager at Local Neon. Sales of neon lights make up 70% of business at the Santa Monica firm, compared to 50% two years ago.
At Hollywood Neon on Melrose in Los Angeles, customers walk out the door with neon cactuses, flamingos and sunsets priced at $200 and up. “A lot of people get their kids’ names done in neon,” said Linda Toliver, a co-owner.
Commissions for works of neon art have hit the seven-figure range. L.A. designer Michael Hayden received $1 million from United Airlines for a piece that stretches 800 feet along the ceiling at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.
It is work by designers like Hayden that many in the industry credit for sparking and sustaining the current boom. “Everybody was waiting for interest in neon to calm down, but it really hasn’t,” said Swormstedt at Signs of the Times. “What is happening is that applications have expanded--it’s no longer just used for commercial signs.”
Architects and interior designers use bands of neon to emphasize shapes and dazzle the eye with hot pink or create a soothing atmosphere with subtle light blue. About $30,000 worth of red and blue neon slithers across the ceilings of AT&T;'s downtown Los Angeles offices. And the architects of the 42-story One California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles crowned their skyscraper with a ribbon of purple-blue neon.
“Neon was controlled by the sign trade,” said Rudi Stern, a New York neon designer and author of “Let There Be Neon.” “It’s now freed itself from that harness. Graphic artists are using neon as an electric pallet that they could draw upon readily. It has a more sophisticated audience.”
Still, most neon is used for commercial signs. “You see a (neon) key in the window and you know it’s a locksmith,” said Charles DiBona, owner of Custom Neon in Los Angeles. Indeed, many shops--like Alert-Lite--survived neon’s downtrend during the 1950s and 1960s by making signs for beer companies and “WALK” “DON’T WALK” on street corners.
Once associated with bars and
motels, neon is now readily accepted by Main Street merchants and professionals.
In the window of their hearing aid shop in Studio City, Rick Farrell and his partner paid $1,500 for an elaborate, multicolored neon sign depicting a hand inserting a hearing aid into a human ear. “Most hearing aid centers had signs without any pizazz to them,” said Farrell. “I think our sign is much neater and prettier than the larger signs with the plastic fronts.”
Ironically, it was those plastic signs backlit by fluorescent lights that began to replace neon in the early 1950s. The plastic signs “are now becoming passe,” said Shal at Local Neon.
A neon sign is a product of artistic flair and technological know-how. At Alert-Lite, customers usually design their own signs and bring in a detailed blueprint of what they want. For small signs, Alert-Lite charges $15 a letter. Larger signs and graphics cost $4 for each foot of tubing.
With blueprints spread at nearby tables, the neon tube benders heat and bend the glass tubes and then lay them down and compare them to the customer’s plan. It can be a frustrating and time-consuming process--a relatively simple “BEER” sign, for instance, can take one hour to complete.
“It looks so simple, yet it is so hard,” said Rio Lee Score Jr., the third generation of the family to work in neon. A good glass bender, he said, is one who is patient, calm and slow to anger. “Anger will break glass,” he said. “The glass is smarter than you are.”
After the sign or graphic has been bent into shape, a pump is used to suck out dirt and air from the tubes. The tubes are then filled with gas, usually neon, which glows orange red, or a combination of argon and mercury, which yields blue. Electricity flowing through the tubes causes the gases to glow.
“You need seven years’ experience to be OK,” Score said. “You get guys out of the schools who don’t know what they are doing.”
The shortage of skilled glass benders--who make up to $25 an hour--has caused headaches at many neon shops. “That is one of the real problems of the sign business,” said Shal at Local Neon. “They’re hard to find and keep.”
An inexperienced neon sign maker can create problems. One Los Angeles neon light maker recalls making a house call to repair a noisy sign installed by another firm: “The light sounded like a circular saw when it came on. A lot of people are working out of their garages and bedrooms.”
There is a chance that its overuse and misuse might turn the public off to neon, some say. “That’s what happened last time,” said Swormstedt of neon’s previous downfall. “It might happen again.”
Still, many neon lovers would like nothing more than to see neon light creep into more store windows, offices and homes. “There’s nothing like neon,” Lakich said. “You feel alive, you feel energized. Nothing has the brightness or carries over miles like neon.”