THROWBACK THURSDAYS--"Plumbing the heights of the DCF archives!"
5TH & McKNIGHT NW--For the last 10 years I had been hearing about a neon graveyard maintained by the Zeon Sign Co. It was said that every old neon sign that was torn down ended up there. What a comfort to know that these signs were safely sequestered somewhere north of downtown.
I decided to check it out in person...and looked forward to being dazzled again by the palm trees of the Tropics Bar sign, the big playing cards of the Jacks Or Better Lounge, and maybe even the huge old KIMO Theater neon sign visible in old postcards. I called up local Rte. 66 historian David Kammer and asked him to accompany me. He played a large part in designating the dozen or so neon signs on Route 66 that were restored throughout the state a few years ago. He was kind enough to consent.
Last week we went down the Zeon Sign Co. We were met by owner Jere (pronounced Jerry) Pelletier. He walked with us into the outdoor storage area...the graveyard. “I don’t know what I can show you,” he said. “The signs of the 40’s and 50’s are gone!”
We wandered around a large lot filled with lights, letters, and twisted sheet metal. Part of an Arby’s hat stood upright on a flatbed truck. Piles of transformers stood next to a purple script spelling ‘Eclipse.’ Dusty glass tubes baked in the sun.
“Some people from the city came down here a few years ago looking for the old KIMO sign. They were pretty upset when it wasn’t here.” I guess one day they had decided to clean out the yard and took everything to the dump. They had run out of room to store things.
We walked into one of the shops. Jere Pelletier started working at Zeon in 1946 when he was a young man. He still blows glass and bends tubes, and he was about to give us a demonstration. But first he pulled a string and a giant Double Rainbow sign lit up the room. It was like seeing an old friend.
Jere was repairing a broken beer sign for somebody’s window. He went over to a bench that had ten small torches focused on a spot in the middle, called a crossfire. “This is for making sharp bends,” he said. After making a clean cut on the broken tube, he heated it up in the torch, along with a new glass tube. He stuck the new tube onto the old one and pushed them gently together. This caused the molten glass to bunch up. He then pulled it apart a little and formed it to the right shape. All the while he was doing this he was blowing air through the middle of the tubing using a piece of surgical hose. “This keeps the melted glass from collapsing,” he continued.
Next we went over to what looked like a homebrew contraption to test the tubing for leaks and fill it with gas. Neon lights typically use either neon or argon...sometimes with added mercury. Jere said that argon was used to make blue, yellow, and white. Neon was used to make the rest of the colors. At any rate, I couldn’t help but notice a sign painted on a transformer over our heads reading, “DANGER 20,000 VOLTS.” I stayed on the rubber mat.
David Kammer and Jere Pelletier kept up a conversation about different neon signs in central New Mexico...about which ones were restored, gone, or merely peeling metal ghosts of a former glory. I listened as the two of them discussed sign restoration.
Restoring neon signs is difficult. Some colors can’t be matched...like rose, for instance. Tubing with the right phosphor coating is no longer available. Sometimes even the size of old tubing can’t be matched...or the manufacturer. Older style transformers must be replaced and exemptions from new fire code regulations must sometimes be sought concerning the use of conduit inside the metalwork.
LED Hats & Flourescent Boxes
“Business is tight,” Jere added. “I wouldn’t suggest anybody get into this business.” He started talking about added environmental regulations, fire codes, and zoning ordinances. Neon signs themselves are becoming rarer and rarer. He said that neon signage only accounts for about 20% of their business. It is largely being replaced by LED lightling. For instance, all the Arby’s signs are no longer neon; they use LED lighting inside the letters. The other threat to neon is the use of boxes illuminated with flourescent bulbs. Flourescent light boxes are cheap and reusable...when a business changed, just slide in another piece of plastic.
A Local Treasure
The Zeon Sign Co. was founded by two salesmen out of Denver in 1939. At its peak, Zeon employed 4 glass blowers. Sign men such as Jere Pelletier and Harold Buell had work hanging all over the state. Now Zeon has only one. “That trade is gone,” said Jere. We left the shop.
Jacks Or Better
“One last thing,” he said, walking over to a large box. “This is the new tubing for the Jacks Or Better sign that was taken down a few years ago. Someone bought it, but never picked it up.”
“I thought I read somewhere that the mayor bought that sign,” I offered.
“Well if he owns it now, tell him his tubes are ready.” I nodded. It looked like they had been ready for a long time.