Neon Hotel Signs

by Jim Harrington – Hotel memories, like neon lights, may flicker over time but do not fade away. Cosmic forces created neon gas to be ubiquitous throughout the universe, but oddly rare here on Earth. When captured in a tube and charged with electricity neon provides brilliant red color to hotel signs and other displays. Brilliant at night, like the Northern Lights, the neon signs with their liquid fire also attract attention during the day.  Mad Men harnessed the potential of this noble gas and changed the course of human culture, through the power of luminous advertising. New craftsman created individual neon tubes that were ‘blown by mouth, and shaped by hand’ that forever made us look at hotel signs, including the Las Vegas ‘Stardust’  and the Wildwood ‘StarLux’ in a new light.

In 1898 British scientists uncovered the element neon.  Its name comes from the Greek word for new. In 1910 a French engineer perfected the neon lamp using an electrified tube filled with the new neon gas. The first neon sign was created in 1912 for a barber shop in Paris. Neon lights arrived in the USA in 1923 when a car dealership in Los Angeles purchased two neon signs in Paris. Neon tubes would multiply and spread to help create an age of light and color in urban America at a time when magazine advertising was still in black and white. A colorful golden age for advertising had arrived on the streets of the USA.

For better or worse, neon light will not be ignored. This is good news for business wanting to attract potential customers. Neon signs often complement colorful backdrops to form streetscape signage and functional works of art. High visibility made hotel neon signs popular again during the expansion of America’s roadside culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Many businesses use neon signs to help passers-by make purchase decisions. For instance, hotels use neon “vacancy” signs to lure weary travelers to awaiting rooms.

Liquid neon fire lights spread from a barber shop in Paris, to a car dealership in Los Angeles, and from there everywhere including Las Vegas, Times Square and Wildwood.  Legend tells that in 1928 a western town seemed to be burning. A man in Rattlesnake Gulch over 10 miles away called the fire department in Missoula Montana. He reported a red glow over the town. The fireman had trouble calming him down. He asked the caller if the blaze was long and rectangular. He said it was, and the fireman assured him it was not red flames that was lighting up the night sky but the new neon sign for the Florence Hotel.

In the summer of 1929 the manager of the Sagamore Hotel in Rochester New York praised his new neon sign saying “Its dignity, attractiveness and its visibility have been commented upon favorably by our guests.”  The manager of the Sheridan Plaza hotel in Chicago, Illinois stated “I now believe in signs!” Neon signs he believed in were ‘signs of prosperity and signs of progress’ that brought in substantially new business every day. Good omens for signs indeed!

Neon gas produces red neon light but there are many other ‘neon light’ colors. The general term ‘neon lights’ is used for all fluorescent light tubes including those filled with other gas mixtures used to produce other colors. At one time the ‘neon light’ fluorescent tubes were available in up to 140 different colors all with their own unique mixture of gas.

Uniquely designed each tube is ‘blown by mouth and shaped by hand’ to become an advertising instrument. To create a neon light first one had to find a work bench with a fireproof cover, running water, gas supply, blower fan and various burners. Then one had to fix a rubber hose on to the glass tube and know how and when to blow through the hose to keep the tube open and know how to shape letters, hearts, dragons, even flying pigs and more while filling the tube vacuum with a noble gas, then apply electrodes and seal the tube. The neon tube, a technology speaking of modernity to come, was not built in autonomous factories but was created by the hands of new artisans in down to earth workshops where glass blowers and sign writers produced these new signs using their breath, mouths and hands. The neon signs they created were often exceptionally original, and shined on with artisan creativity and craftsmanship.

Neon signs were once the primary form of storefront advertising in the United States from the 1920s to 1960s. During this period, these eye-catching and affordable signs were symbols of modernity, consumerism and the excitement of travel on the open road. As car travel increased, with mobile leisure society discovering the highways, the signs that beckoned travelers to stay the night also exemplified that same sort of exuberance of new car travel, with swooping arrows, fins, pointing sputniks and enough colored neon to light up the night for miles around.

By the 1930’s neon advertising techniques had spread like liquid fire throughout the world. By the 1950’s and 1960’s neon signs began its slow but unstoppable decline. “Mad Men, also known as ‘Madison Avenue Ad Men’ had moved on and replaced individual neon lights with mass produced backlit plastic structures that were much easier to use, more flexible and more durable than glass. However not everyone could afford these new advertising displays and neon began its noir-ish decline used by those less expensive diners, bars and hotels. Neon lights might flicker but they don’t fade away. In many ways the iconic neon hotel sign flourished as neon advertising overall was declining. In the 1950’s to 1970’s Las Vegas, Nevada and Wildwood, New Jersey created neon cityscapes. Las Vegas, Nevada developed the famous ‘Stardust’ hotel  on the Strip and Wildwood, New Jersey reinvented the “StarLux” a new neon hotel on the Wildwood boardwalk.

Although late coming to the neon game Las Vegas would define neon for years to come. Las Vegas casinos went for spectacular innovations to attract gamblers. It sparked an enormous success of

Stardust Hotel - Las Vegas, NV
Stardust Hotel – Las Vegas, NV

contemporary light art and brought about renewed interest in neon glowing letters and signs. Without its neon signs, Las Vegas would be virtually unrecognizable. From the electric blue martini glass complete with neon green olive above Fremont Street to the multicolored hot-air balloon of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel on the Strip, these neon signs add more than a dash of color to the city at night. It makes Vegas one of the brightest places on Earth according to NASA, with billions of light bulbs and more than 24,000km of neon tubing. Tom Wolfe wrote “Las Vegas is the only city in the world whose skyline is made neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs. But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, and they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless.”

The premiere sign maker in Las Vegas is the ‘Young Electric Sign Company’, or YESCO. They were founded in 1920. They were quick to latch on to the possibilities of neon lighting, creating the first neon signs in the west starting from 1927. After opening a branch in Las Vegas’s Apache Hotel in 1933, YESCO began reimagining Vegas through signs. The neon light experience we know today in Las Vegas really began in 1945 with the Boulder Club sign that was the first real ‘neon spectacular’ sign to hit the streets. Vegas being Vegas of course the Pioneer Club down the street wanted a bigger, brighter sign and then someone else wanted a bigger sign and it really snowballed from there. YESCO created a chunk of Vegas’s most iconic signs in the next 15 years including the Las Vegas Club, the Glitter Gulch, Vegas Vic, The Mint, the Silver Slipper, the Golden Nugget, the Stardust and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.

In Las Vegas, neon signs are such a part of the city’s identity that there’s an entire museum dedicated to the preservation of its most iconic ones. Visitors to the Neon Museum can see signs collected from hotels, businesses, and casinos that date back to the 1930s! The Neon Boneyard, a gallery or resting place for neon signs attached to the Las Vegas Neon Museum, is home to more than 200 signs including the Stardust.

Back in 1958, the new Stardust hotel-casinos neon sign was a blast of light that could be seen for 100km across the Nevada desert. The world’s largest electric sign – 66m long, 8m tall and with 2,200m of neon tubing – depicted giant letters in Atomic-style font, amid a whirring, orbiting solar system. Inspired by the Sputnik satellite and the atomic tests in the Nevada desert at the time, it was a riot of energy, fantasy and futurism that dominated the entire hotel front. The Stardust was really the first time that architecture, design and advertising all came together in one building. The sign was the building, and it was an advertisement for itself, which articulated this fantasy of the atomic age. It also created its own font which we know today as Atomic and it broke all the lettering design rules at the time. And when you walked into the building you could hear the whirring mechanisms of the sign. The Stardust sign changed everything people thought you could do with a neon sign. Hotels stay open until they close for good. After operating continuously for 48 years the Stardust closed and was eventually spectacularly imploded into dust and debris but the sign lives on in the Neon Boneyard.

Today only around 5 of the 400 staff at YESCO’s Vegas factory work in traditional neon sign-making. Most of the rest are working on digital displays with LED and fiber optic technologies that allow for more efficient signage even when shaped into familiar, neon-like forms. Some of their work today is starting to look like what was predicted in the movie Blade Runner. Still there is something about the original neon light colors that won’t allow them to fade away.  Given YESCO’s history, neon will always be a part of they do, and what’s amazing is that a well-made neon light from 1930 will still shine on as bright today as it did then.

Starlux hotel in Wildwood NJ
Starlux hotel in Wildwood NJ

In the late 1940’s a boom in hotel development hit undeveloped beach land in and around the town of Wildwood, New Jersey. By the 1950’s and 1960’s beach front rooming houses had come down and new mom and pop motels started to go up. These new motels, hotels designed for motorists, mirrored the rise of the great American automobile with architecture that spoke of movement and speed along America’s vast open highways. These new motels were meant to be seen while you were going fast.

While people traveled by car to a vacation resort they dreamed about space travel and spaceships of the future. Sputnik, the first man made satellite in space, was launched in 1957 and space imagery became the rave for new hotels here on earth. With signature jagged fins and more neon lights not just on the sign but all around railings and trim of the building and Wildwood, New Jersey was transformed into a terrestrial spaceport for a family getaway vacation not to be forgotten for generations to come. Wildwood was a “Jetson-esque” destination of imagination with a neon glow so bright you could see it from miles away to guide you in your imaginary spaceship to their celestial shore for check in.

Families do not want to go on vacation and stay at hotel named ‘Motel 9’ when they can go to a spaceport by the beach and stay at the ‘Satellite’ or ‘White Star Motel’. Having an exotic name was an important draw to attract guests. Having a great sign could be an even bigger draw. Sometimes a very small independent hotel with a large sign would win over a vacationing family. For these mom and pop motels their sign built their logo. Whereas today modern advertising has the company logos build the sign. In Wildwood neon light craftsman built the sign for the motel and then from the image of the sign the motel owners created the motel logo. This led to a great burst of creativity which would be identified as ‘Doo Wop’ style to describe this unique, space-age architectural neon design.

Around the turn of the millennium a lot of these mom and pop motel owners were getting ready to retire at the same time a condominium building blitz hit the Wildwood resort town. Mom and pop motels came down and vacation condominiums went up. This great tear down of mom and pop motels with their unique creativity of branding and signage could never be replaced. From 2000 to 2005 832 buildings were torn down in Wildwood. 100’s of neon signs were destroyed. In May 2006 the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Wildwood’s Doo Wop motels as number one on its most endangered list.

The mystique of neon motel signs was sometimes lost on owners too busy making a living. The emotional landmark so beautiful and unique to many outsiders is not completely visible through eyes blurred by a lifetime of hard work. When given an opportunity for a lucrative retirement through a buyout many took condominium developer offers. But some owners and their families took a path less traveled. With the heritage of hard work and an eye for the soulfulness of the emotional landmark created in Wildwood over time they preserved not through historic district mandates but through reinvention Wildwood’s unique character. The next generation of Wildwood entrepreneurs created a new or retro 1950’s or 1960’s experience. They renovated former hotels like the Wingate Motel into the ‘Starlux’ Hotel with something to please the modern traveler and yet maintain the look and feel of a vintage hotel without any of the drawbacks of a 60 year old property. And doing so they shrewdly maintained the memories families had built up going to Wildwood for generations. At the ‘StarLux’ one has the feeling of stepping through time and being enveloped in the beauty, simplicity, and imagination of the 1950’s only with the finest of present day amenities. Starlux is the crowning jewel of the new Doo Woop properties in Wildwood today, its cylindrical stairwell, splashy décor, ramped roof lounge and glittering knock it out of the ball park sign shows what is to come not just what has been lost. To get a feel for what was lost in Wildwood you will have to go to the Doo Wop sign garden at the Doo Wop museum. Rather than mothball the signs the Doo Wop preservation league is relighting the night sky in front of the museum with historic neon lights of bygone motels.

Flickering hotel neon lights will not fade away. Preservation leagues around the country are restoring old hotel neon signs as artistic cultural artifacts. Neon lights are bright on the strip in Las Vegas, Nevada and on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey. Neon hotel lights are being restored even here in Colorado. Denver’s Colfax Avenue was historically known as the “Gateway to the Rockies”, is the longest Main Street in the US and had its share of Doo Wop  neon hotel signs.  And new hotel entrepreneurs are recreating retro hotel neon signs. Not content to just be a memory these new neon displays attract today’s guests with an opportunity to step back in time while keeping today’s wi-fi intact. Neon hotel lights, like hotel memories, shine on!