Saving Neon Signs One Flash at a Time

'Dancing Kids' is an animated neon sign on the Tower theater, whose tower also has neon. Photo by Dave Weinstein

One by one Gretchen Steinberg has watched as they depart, Sacramento’s historic neon signs that once beckoned passersby with scintillating seduction. She’s doing her best to save the neon that remains.

“There are a variety of approaches we are trying here in Sacramento,” says Steinberg, president of Sacramento Modern, including preserving signs that have been moved and exhibiting them in a new location . “My ultimate goal is to keep what little vintage neon we have left to stay in place.”

She despairs for every historic sign that has been removed. One, which one graced the Yorozu gift shop on Riverside Boulevard, she has helped preserve. The new owner of the shop, who no longer wanted it, offered it to an institution that does – the Center for Sacramento History.

Neon at Lil Joe's on Del Paso Boulevard. Courtesy of Sacramento Modern

Done deal. Except the center didn’t have the money to handle it. So SacMod stepped in, putting up about $2,000 to remove the sign, crate it up properly and haul it to the center, Steinberg says.

The center has a great collection of manuscripts and artifacts, including neon, but no museum – yet. Once it does the neon in the collection may finally be seen again by the public. The museum currently puts on exhibits at vaarious spots throughout town.

Another neon sign from Sacramento’s past has found a new home – but not in Sacramento. David Webb, one of the world’s greatest collectors of chemically-induced commercial lighting, is adding the Fun Center sign to his Pomeroy City Walk in Pomeroy, Washington, a grand concourse of neon signs from around the globe.

“Webb’s goal is simple,” the Union-Bulletin reports. “to hang a restored neon sign on every building in town that wants one.”

“The Fun Center sign is originally from Old Sac,” Webb says.

Although Steinberg wants to keep Sacramento’s signs in place so locals can enjoy them, she doesn’t begrudge Pomeroy its new sign.

“The fact of the matter is, someone likes the sign enough to save it from the dumpster,” she says. “The sign is still being enjoyed, only it’s not being enjoyed here in Sacramento.”

Cat House
Sacramento's Fun Center sign is moving to Pomeroy, Washington. Courtesy of David Webb/Pomeroy City Walk

Nationwide, it seems, attention is focusing on neon protection. In San Francisco, the group San Francisco Heritage is attending to neon, even running a scavenger hunt to find forgotten neon signs. And a new book on the subject is on the way.

In Sacramento, Steinberg notes, only a handful of neon signs are protected as historic resources, sometimes because they are one of a building's “character defining features.” One such protected bit of neon is the “dancing kids” atop the Tower Theater. That’s one of Steinberg’s favorites because it is animated.

Another one she likes, she says, is on the “Club Raven, where the raven flaps its wings.”

“We’re working with the city trying to get an ordinance so signs can be considered a historic resource to addition to the buildings,” she says.

“At this point, the signs are up by the grace and will of the owner of the building.”

What is it about neon that gets to her?

“I’m a design student,” says Steinberg, who’s raising a family when she’s not preserving things, “and someday when I grow up I’d like to create light fixtures. I’m a big light junkie.”

“Neon reflects a certain space and time in our culture. They’re just a lot of fun. Who doesn’t like neon signs? It’s roadside Americana.”

She notes that come newer businesses in town are adding neon to their exteriors, including the Freeport Bakery.

“It does seem to be enjoying a bit of a resurgence,” she says of neon. “As we’re losing some of the old signs, we’re starting to get new ones.”

Black Eye
Even a dry cleaning establishment glows like it's the finest nightclub in Paris thanks to -- neon! Photo by Joe/Happyshooter, on Flickr

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