The first neon sign reportedly blinked on at the Paris Motor Show in 1910. Such signs quickly became popular for advertising, and they probably peaked about 40 years after Paris. Today, the preservation of historic neon signs interests many cities. As the old casinos came down in Las Vegas, many of their classic signs were hauled to what is nostalgically called The Graveyard. Only a few of them, like the famous Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on Las Vegas Boulevard, are still part of the scene. I don’t think I’ve ever passed it without seeing tourists taking pictures of it and themselves. Due to the expense, only a few of these Las Vegas icons have been restored.
The Museum of Neon Art opened in Glendale, California, in 2016. It sprang from a small venue in downtown LA that truly promoted neon design as ART. It and another neon mecca in Ohio are the 2 finest places to see neon in the United States. Part of the reason why Ruth & I traveled to Cincinnati in early spring, 2017, was to see the American Sign Museum in this city’s industrial Camp Washington neighborhood. If you’ve wondered what happened to that glowing neon sign that was your favorite while growing up, it could be in Cincinnati.
This museum invites everyone to stop by and “Take a Walk Down Memory Lane”. But the American Sign Museum is much more than a nostalgia factory. Among other things, it’s an explosion of color and, maybe, a place to order your own neon sign from design and neon sign repair masters. All of the signs I saw there were working overtime to dazzle me as I learned about smalt, gilding, and neon history. New York’s Times Square once had 2 Howard Johnson restaurants, their neon competing for attention with many other dancing lights on what is still lovingly called The Great White Way.
Tod Swormstedt founded the American Sign Museum, but Louis Wartman is the King of Cincinnati Neon. While raising 16 children, Lou ran a neon shop. Three of his son’s learned the trade, and Tom Wartman is still creating neon and passionate about it. He and his partner Greg Pond, who keep this museum aglow, report that business is fine. They moved their workshop to the American Sign Museum in 2010. It’s called Neonworks. Some of the signs they keep colorfully brilliant have been around for decades and are from all over the United States. I was quite surprised to see, for example, a well-remembered St. Charles Ice Cream sign from my hometown, St. Louis, among the stock.