Neon: the Lights of His Life : Hobbies: In five years, Mike Queen has managed to rescue and restore some of San Diego’s finest pieces of sign art.
What do you call a man who’s a nut for neon?
If he’s Mike Queen, call him a “neoniac.” That’s what it says on his business cards in glowing lime green and pink letters. And that’s how Queen, 35, has referred to himself ever since he saved his first piece of local neon from destruction nearly six years ago.
“I’ve always been fascinated by neon, the colors and the movement. But after collecting my first piece, I was like a moth drawn to light, out of control,” he said.
Queen is more than a collector. In five years he has managed to rescue and restore some of San Diego’s finest pieces of neon art from the 1940s and ‘50s.
Most of the signs he has saved are huge, figural “big can” signs, mounted on metal boxes that hold the transformer. Some are animated figures and others were created with colors no longer used today (either because of expense or because the old chemicals are now considered unsafe). But what sets so many of the old signs apart, Queen says, is the craftsmanship displayed by the master neon makers, known as “tube benders.”
“These signs can never be replaced,” he said. “People just can’t afford to do that kind of workmanship anymore.”
There’s the 8-by-12-foot neon cowgirl riding a prancing horse, from the former Westerner Club in Chula Vista. There’s the dancing couple--created in a rare 18- millimeter glass from the 1940s called Lenslite--from atop the Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Hillcrest. There’s the animated roller-skating girl from the former Palisades Rink in North Park. And there are dozens of blinking neon signs from local shoe stores, cocktail lounges and corner markets.
Without his efforts, the signs would have ended up in private hands, scattered throughout the country, or in a sign scrap yard, called “boneyards” by sign companies.
“These signs reflect our past, and they shouldn’t be thrown away,” Queen said. “If we don’t save these signs, they won’t be around in another 10 years.”
Thanks to Queen, the cowgirl still rides, the couple still dances and the feet on the roller-skating girl still flash and flicker. He rescued and restored all three signs, and they now rest--with most of his extensive collection--in the warehouse of his company, Phoenix Construction, in Kearny Mesa. He hopes one day to open his own museum or donate the local signs to a neon museum. Better yet, he’d like to mount the signs back in their original locations.
“San Diego is very, very shy of anything worth preserving,” said David Skelley, owner of Boomerang, a Hillcrest store that sells 1950s furniture and other items. “People here think the newer the better. Mike is one of the few people fighting for preservation.”
As San Diego booms, old buildings fall, and with them the neon “jewelry” that decorated them. Many other signs are lost because of earthquake requirements--owners are often reluctant to finance the signs’ stabilization. Queen and other neon fans also claim that some bureaucrats find neon signs tacky and are glad to see them thrown away.
“You can make anything earthquake-proof,” Queen said. “In someone’s mind, a neon sign is an eyesore, and seismic codes are just an excuse they use to get rid of the sign.”
Queen lights up his office with a scattering of free-standing “skeleton” signs with logos such as “Pressing and alterations while u wait” and “Lucky Lady Card Room.” His favorites are cocktail signs, especially in red.
“Gaudy and cheap-looking, that’s the way a cocktail sign should look,” said Queen.
His home also glows with neon light. There’s a green “Speedy Delivery” man in the living room, midnight blue neon tubes above his bed and pink and blue neon stars on the roof over his patio. (The colors in neon signs are actually created with two
gases, neon and argon, and colored-powder-coated tubes.)
He also has his favorite neon clock--one of the nearly dozen in his collection--in his house. He restored the battered and rusted clock right down to finding an original face and motor. It took him months.
“Now it looks just like it did when it was first built in 1947,” he said proudly.
Queen traded one of his clocks for the neon sign on top of the former Ace Drug Store in Mission Hills. He restored the nine-foot-high sign, which features a neon ace of spades with the word drug in green letters, and loaned it to the Corvette Diner in Hillcrest for display above the bar.
Although he’s a serious collector, Queen says he wouldn’t dream of selling his signs.
“The only reason I get these signs is because I promise the owners I won’t sell them,” he said. “They trust me not to go back on my word.”
Still, it’s not easy to track down old signs. It took him months to get the roller-skater, a 1947 sign that decorated the popular Palisades Garden rink. First he searched city records to find the sign’s owner. When he finally did, it took weeks of talking before the owner trusted him enough to let the sign go--along with a dozen three-foot-wide neon stars from the rink’s ceiling.
He’s still restoring the skater, a complex series of neon tubes that twist and double back on each other. Because he couldn’t find the original blueprints, Queen is using old photographs from the San Diego Historical Society archives.
Often, buying the sign is the least expensive part of the process. Queen’s rescue of the Chula Vista cowgirl is a good example of the detective work, research and money it takes. After the club was torn down, Queen bid on the sign through the National City Community Development Commission. He got it for $15. But it cost him $210 to hire a crane to take down the 600-pound sign from its perch 50 feet up. A local “tube bender” charged him $500 to repair the tubes. Queen then paid $80 more for a stand on which to mount the sign in his warehouse.
That’s the money part. The restoration was typical of Queen’s almost fanatical attention to detail. He tracked down the original artist, Peter Luitjens, to repaint the horse. Luitjens not only did it for free, he left intact the bullet hole put there years ago by a rowdy club customer.
“That was the best part for me, having the original artist paint the sign 40 years later,” Queen said.
Now the cowgirl rides in his warehouse next to a huge red shoe, a hotel sign with a bellboy, and a blue Van de Kamp’s bakery sign, a porcelain blue windmill with revolving blades and argon-blue letters.
“These old signs make everybody remember the past, a happier time,” Queen said. “No matter where they grew up in the United States, they remember a neon sign.”