On the neon trail
Originally published April 26, 2007
When I was a kid growing up in Edmonton in the 1960s, we used to drive past the A & W Restaurant on 109th Street and 103rd Avenue. It had a grand neon sign that poured root beer from a spigot into a mug. 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.
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.
That was the start of my fascination with neon, and to this day, whenever I travel, I am on the prowl for surviving signs from neon’s halcyon days of the mid 20th century. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, historic Route 66 is bathed in a sea of neon. From 1926 through the 1960s, the 3,800-kilometre “Mother Road” between Chicago and Santa Monica provided America's introduction to car culture and cross-country travel.
The famous route may be gone, replaced by multi-lane Interstate blacktop, but locals are resurrecting its spirit through imaginative use of signage. The Route 66 Diner stops people by the carload to admire the colours and remember when.
Closer to home, Vancouver was a Canadian hotbed for neon signs. By 1960, the city boasted some 19,000 neon signs, illuminating the city’s commercial streets in a riot of colour and movement.
They ranged from the simple to the elaborate and the delicate to the grand. There were delicate window signs, like the tiny neon dogwood flowers which beckoned from the window of the Silver Grille Café. And there were massive works of sign art, such as the giant “Owl Drug We Deliver” sign which measured 15 feet long and six feet high.
While neon signs in most other cities were sold outright, in Vancouver they were usually leased and business owners signed maintenance contracts, ensuring that the stock of signs were kept in good working order. When a business went out of business, the signs were quickly removed, which means most of the city’s vintage signs have now vanished.
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. Continent-wide, many of the classic tube signs were destroyed. Some met a fate worse than death, like Vancouver’s fantastic tumbling waterfall Niagara Hotel sign, pasted over with the name of the new owners when the business changed hands.
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. Within a few years, dozens of the signs had sprung to life around the city.
The signs were made using tubes of glass filled with electrically excited, glowing gases, collectively known by the name of neon, the most common one. Neon signs were advertised as Neon Luminous Gas Signs and were called the “wonder invention of the age. One slogan read – “With your message in letters of fire – NEON.”
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.
Edmonton historian Dorothy Field notes that neon’s flexibility and range of colors gave it wide appeal, and positively spectacular signs were the result. “Neon was particularly effective against the reflective surfaces popular in the 1940s and '50s: chrome and vitrolite,” she says.
“The night sky became a backdrop for enormous rooftop signs. Edmonton's Jasper Avenue featured several such monsters—meat packers Gainers and Swifts competed for attention in the skyline as well as on the shelf and an especially striking behemoth touted the virtues of natural gas.”
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 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.
Ravaged by time and neglect, some of the classic neon signs that have survived don’t work all that well anymore. But well-made neon signs, properly maintained, have outlasted many businesses, and Edmonton boasts some eye-catching survivors.
They include the moving bicycle at Western Cycle and classic neon lettering of the Commercial Hotel. Sadly, favourites, like the Minit Carwash bubbles on Jasper Avenue west of 116th Street and the crown on the old Royal Hotel on 96th Street, were removed just a few years ago.
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 formative years captivated by the wonder of neon.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.