Neon Conference Could be World’s Best


Among the many tours and other events at Neon Speaks will be a visit to Jim Rizzo's neon sign studio in Oakland, as seen above at last year's conference. Photo by Al Barna

Long past are the days when neon signs were seen as proof positive that you were crossing the River Styx, entering a depraved neighborhood of creepy, old hotels and red-light district businesses.

Today, among those in the know and those hip to the past with an eye towards the future, neon signs are seen as classic, both works of art and heralds of better days. Throughout the country, people who love these signs and see their value in the urban streetscape have fought, often successfully, to preserve and restore historic signs.

But too often, say Randall Ann Homan and Al Barna, sign preservationists work in a vacuum, not learning from each others’ successes.

That’s why the couple, who make up San Francisco Neon, are putting on the three-day Neon Speaks Festival and Symposium, which takes place from April 26 to 28, with locations throughout San Francisco and the East Bay, though it is centered around San Francisco’s Tenderloin—where else?—an area awash in neon signs.

The Verdi Club not only sports marvelous neon, it will be one of the sites for the neon conference. Photo by Al Barna

“Everybody said, 'Why don’t you do a conference? Get people together?'” Al says, explaining the genesis of Neon Speaks, which was held for the first time last year and attracted just under 100 people, selling out. This year they expect twice that number. They say it seems to be the largest neon conference anywhere.

“People tell us it’s the first of its kind,” Al says, as he checks off where attendees are coming from – “15 different cities and seven states,” Boston, New York Reno, Tucson.

If you’d like to attend this year’s conference, Neon Speaks, you’d better move fast. Some events are already completely spoken for. Events can be attended by individual ticket, or you can book the full conference.

Just a few blocks from the Tenderloin Museum, neon blazes from the Senator Hotel. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Barna and Homan are neon enthusiasts, preservationists, and scholars – and entertainers. Their presentations incorporate film as well as still images, and they have managed to put together an amazing collection.

Neon signs are having a resurgence, in part because of Al and Randall and many of the other presenters at this conference. This, despite the trickiness of working with glass and noble gasses to create commercial signage and art.

Saving Neon
'Saving Neon' will be celebrated with a book launch party at the conference. Photo by Al Barna

Among Randall and Al’s publications is a useful hands-on and activists guide, ‘Saving Neon: A Best Practices Guide,’ from 2018. The book, which has its launch party at the conference, grew out of last year’s event.

“Has a neon sign in your neighborhood fallen into darkness?” they ask, plaintively. “This guidebook gives you the information you need to kick into conservation mode to ‘save the sign’ using neon best practices.”

Randall adds, “The book covers everything, from gathering community support to buying the right hardware.”

Among the many events on the schedule, tours of neon in Alameda and of Jim Rizzo’s neon workshop in Oakland will get people into the neighborhoods and up close with neon signmaking.

One of the first events will be the Neon Curiosity Lounge on Friday afternoon, where you  can meet neon historians and some of the best neon sign makers, including Bill Concannon, Dydia DeLyser, Heather David, and Tod Swormstedt.

Al and Randall emphasize that all events include refreshments and a chance to socialize – which is one of the goals of the conference, people sharing ideas and war stories.

“Hearing other peoples’ success stories get more people working to save more signs,” Randall says.

The symposium will feature, among other talks:

Classic neon signs decorate the Rizzo neon workshop in Oakland.

“Eric Lynxwiler, board member of the Museum of Neon Art, will give opening remarks and moderate a panel discussion after the presentations."

“Tracey Sprague, of the Neon Museum of Las Vegas, will give us the backstory of Betty Willis, one of the most popular Las Vegas sign designers, and how she stood out from her contemporaries. Betty designed the 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas' sign and the gorgeous script of the Moulin Rouge casino and other iconic Las Vegas signs.”

“John Law is a San Francisco raconteur, prankster, and sign man. John has stories about the daredevil aspects of restoring the 'big signs' of the Bay Area: The Ferry Building, Hills Brothers Coffee, and the Oakland Tribune Tower clock. When John wasn't busy restoring and hanging neon signs, he was co-founding the Cacophony Society, Suicide Club, and Burning Man.”

If you are considering some hands-on neon-making, consider attending this event:

“April 28 Sunday The Art of Neon with Shawna Peterson, Peterson Neon, Oakland. An ongoing afternoon event with timed tickets for an hour-long demo: What does it take to create a work of art fabricated from neon-filled glass tubes? Watch it happen with neon artist/tube-bender deluxe, Shawna Peterson.”

Why have Randall and Al devoted their lives to old neon signs?

“Our city is changing so much, and a neon sign represents a small, locally owned business,” Randall says, quickly shifting to another reason. “It’s the quality of the light. The color is amazing.”

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