Drawing with light
Originally published August 3, 2004
When the neon sign that announced Mike’s News to the world was carted away in the late 1970s, a good chunk of my formative years fell with it. The sign, with its crooked leg of a man reading the Star Weekly that seemed to move by magic, was a Jasper Avenue landmark for more than 40 years.
It wasn’t until years later, quite by accident, that I stumbled upon this fragment of my childhood, pushed into a corner at the city’s Artifact Centre. I looked at it, smile spreading across my face, waiting for it to move, as the memories came flooding back of childhood years captivated by the spell of neon.
In the fading light of the day, they moved as if by some enchanted force – a hamburger patty flipping on its own, an arrow ascending a tall mast, root beer pouring from a spout. During a summer rain, the roads slicked wet, their warm reflections transported me to the world of so many vintage films I knew and loved.
The first neon sign on Edmonton streets made its appearance in December 1928 at Darling’s Drug Store, at the corner of Jasper Avenue and 102nd Street. With a few years, dozens of the signs had sprung to life around the city, including the venerable Mike’s sign.
Neon signs were advertised as Neon Luminous Gas Signs and were called the “wonder invention of the age.” As constant salesman delivering their message day and night, they were guaranteed to attract customers and make an indelible impression.
With their bright, vibrant colours and the dressed up appearance they gave the stores they adorned, the signs found quick popularity in Depression-era Edmonton. They also increased the use of electricity which, in turn, generated employment.
While the days of vintage neon are long over, Edmonton still boasts some outstanding examples of the signs. They include the vintage marquee adorning Hub Cigar, the classic neon lettering of the Commercial Hotel, the moving bicycle of Western Cycle and the Minit Car Wash bubbles. One of my favourites, the crown on the old Royal Hotel on 96th Street, was sadly carted off in 2002.
The destruction of such signs is a sad footnote in an illuminating chapter of North American history. Around Edmonton, there are those signs that, alas, are but a flickering memory.
Other than the Mike’s News sign, one of my all-time favourites was the giant A & W marquee on 109th Street. Root beer poured from the spigot and tumbled down into a mug and into my consciousness. Just down the street, the MacCosham's Van Lines sign, with its giant wheels spinning round, was a longtime landmark on the northeast corner of 109th Street and Jasper Avenue.
Ravaged by time and neglect, some don’t work as well as they once did. But well-made neon signs, properly maintained, have outlasted many businesses.
The halcyon days of the age of neon ended with the introduction of backlit signs. They were cheaper to construct and operate; able to provide more information in a smaller space; easier to mass produce.
From little beer signs in windows of pubs to larger marquees, baby boomers seeking nostalgia are propelling a neon renaissance. In recent years, mass produced neon -- like those beer signs -- has become all the rage. Some in the industry question whether the popularization is helping, or hurting, the renaissance of neon.
This new crop of mass-produced signs could be called the American Idol of signage - quickly manufactured, heavily marketed and astonishing popular. Crude as some of them may be, they have the ability to turn people onto the beauty of neon.
These days, just a handful of schools teach the craft of neon bending, but their ranks and the number of operators are growing. As it was in the heyday of the craft, neon sign making is again gaining acceptance for its artistic merits. When he said, "I draw with light; the night is my canvas," New York neon designer Rudy Stern was speaking for an entire generation.
And to the imagination of the child inside us all. That neon is again a sign of the times makes our streets and our lives seem a little more romantic, a little warmer and more alive.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.