Restoring neon signs for a local museum is a labour of love for those involved, but it's all worth it to see them light up.
By Cailynn Klingbeil | May 3, 2016
photography by Paul Swanson
When David Menard learned people were volunteering their time to bring old neon signs back to life for an upstart Edmonton museum, he knew immediately that it was the Mike’s News sign he wanted to work on.
The Mike’s News piece – featuring an engrossed reader hiding behind a copy of the Toronto Star Weekly – is now the most elaborate of the 11 signs that make up the outdoor Neon Sign Museum on 104th Street. The reader’s foot swings and a puff of smoke rises from his cigar.
For Menard, though, it wasn’t the complexities that attracted him to the animated sign; rather, it was pure nostalgia. “I remember going to the Mike’s News store on Jasper Avenue as a young teenager, going down with my buddies and looking at car magazines,” says Menard. He restored the Mike’s News sign while working for New Look Signs, pouring more than 100 hours into the piece’s rebirth.
Such sentimental stories abound since the museum, the first of its kind in Canada, began glowing in February 2014 on the outside of the Telus building on 104th Street and 104th Avenue. “Every one of those signs tells a story,” says Tim Pedrick, a senior sales representative at Hi Signs The Fath Group and past president of the Alberta Sign Association (ASA). The ASA has overseen the restoration of the signs, distributing them to member companies who offer time, ensuring that these stories are kept alive.
Pedrick has watched passersby stop at the museum to reminisce about the local businesses that once were, from hardware store W.W. Arcade to Georgia Baths, a steam-bath facility.
“The signs talk,” he says. “There’s all that history.”
But neon signs are complex, Pedrick says, and labour-intensive to build and maintain. They require tubes of glass heated in sections and bent into shape, a skill few Edmontonians – called neon tube benders – still practice. “It’s such a unique craft,” Pedrick says. The glass tubes contain neon or other inert gases and, when a modest electric voltage is applied to electrodes at the ends, the gas glows. When easier, less expensive lighting options emerged – first fluorescent, then LED – neon waned.
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Making neon signs may be a fading art, but those left practising it are a passionate bunch. David Holdsworth, a senior urban designer with the City of Edmonton who sparked the creation of the museum, received an enthusiastic response when he contacted the ASA to see if members would be interested in volunteering to restore the collection. Some signs required light retouching while others had to be gutted and rebuilt. “They’ve gone way beyond the call of duty here,” Holdsworth says of the restorers. “It has been amazing.”
Daryl Blanchett, owner of Blanchett Neon, is a third-generation member of the family business and one of many local businesspeople who volunteered labour and material to bring the museum pieces up to snuff. Blanchett Neon took on the Canadian Furniture sign, the catalyst for the entire project. It was rusty and falling apart, so bad that Blanchett estimates just five per cent of the original materials were kept. Restoration took more than 300 hours but, for Blanchett, the effort was worthwhile.
“It’s important for all of us sign companies to keep the old traditions alive, and to keep these signs from the junkyard,” he says.
The Neon Sign Museum is rooted in pure happenstance. Holdsworth saw a large neon sign for Canadian Furniture being removed from a building in 2002. “We knew instinctively this should be saved and kept,” Holdsworth says. As others became aware Holdsworth was rescuing neon artifacts, the collection grew.
While Holdsworth liked the old signs – “They are works of art,” he says – he had no clue how they worked, or how to fix them. Getting the aging displays back aglow has been an arduous process. More signs are slowly being salvaged. There’s space for at least 30 neon artifacts on the wall of the Telus building, and some signs that don’t fit the cantilever structure will soon be installed across the street, on the Mercer building. Signs must be donated, Holdsworth says, and have significance to Edmonton or northern Alberta.
In the case of the elaborate Mike’s News sign, the piece had to be stripped down to bare metal, the ratty paint removed, the transformers and neon tubes pulled off to be repaired or replaced. The sign has 52 pieces of neon and uses 12 transformers to fire it up – the most neon transformers Menard has ever seen in a single sign of that size.
For Menard, seeing the finished product was “awesome.” “It was such a great moment to see everything working again, to see his leg kicking, to see the cigar smoke. It was very satisfying,” he says. Now production manager at Hi Signs The Fath Group, Menard is restoring a second W.W. Arcade sign for the museum, finding time for it when he can. If his company is willing to take on another sign after that, he says he would be happy to help. “Nothing really has the same je ne sais quoi as neon,” he says.
Directly across from the Neon Sign Museum, a massive Mercer sign glows red, the large letters displayed vertically. While the signs on the museum are vintage, this one is brand new. It was made by David Menard, then with New Look Signs, at a cost of about $30,000, and took more than two weeks to build and a full day to install.
Kelly Pope of Gather Developments, which owns the Mercer Warehouse, says the sign was a way to honour the nearby museum while enhancing the old warehouse building and the area. “A new modern-looking sign would only take away from my vision of Mercer,” he says. The neon sign suits the building, while also clearly branding it. Numerous businesses – including Mercer Tavern, restaurant Rostizado, Transcend Coffee and Startup Edmonton – call Mercer home.
Pope, who is passionate about old buildings, has been enthused about the Neon Sign Museum from its start. He mentioned early on to City of Edmonton staff that he wanted to help in whatever way he could, and when he was recently approached about putting several signs on one of Mercer’s walls, he jumped at the opportunity. “The idea of the Neon Sign Museum is a fantastic one,” he says.
While the cost of outdoor neon signs may deter some business owners, Neil Martin has found a successful business niche producing custom indoor neon signs. Martin is asecond-generation neon tube bender who now runs his business out of his garage, following years spent learning from and working with his dad.
“I try to inject a little art into the sign work,” Martin says. “I’m having a lot of fun.” Martin’s signs are found in numerous local homes and businesses, including El Cortez, The Mercury Room and The Downtown Diner in Fort Saskatchewan.
The Downtown Edmonton Community League had Martin make an “I yegdt” sign to display on the front window of its community space. Chris Buyze, president of DECL, says the neon sign, which cost $1,200, has proven popular. “There’s a nostalgia for it,” he says. “It’s a connection to the past.”