Keeping Omaha's classic neon signs shining


Reasons for neon sign repair

• Old age

• Bitter-cold Nebraska winters

• High winds

• Hail damage

• Idiots with rocks

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Cindy Tooker loves her midtown commute because she gets to drive past some of her favorite Omaha signs.

Like La Casa Pizzaria at 45th and Leavenworth

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Bronco's at 4540 Leavenworth St.

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Charlie Graham Body & Services at 42nd and Leavenworth

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And Omaha Lace Laundry Cleaners at 50th and Leavenworth

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“I'm excited about what is still there,” said the architect, preservationist and neon devotee, “but I'm sad about what's gone.”

Those old Omaha landmarks, those quirky cornerstones that felt essential to their neighborhood but nonetheless had to go when their businesses called it quits.

Like Chu's Chop Suey Cocktail Lounge on Center

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Photo by 2020 Omaha Preservation Network

Or Harry Watts Pet O'Mine Shop

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Used to be at 42nd and Leavenworth. Photo by 2020 Omaha Preservation Network

Tooker's a member of two local preservation groups, Restoration Exchange and 2020 Omaha, both of which attempt to give older properties (and sometimes business signs) a better shot at enduring.

In some cases, this involves finding someone to salvage the sign of a closing business, which 2020 Omaha tried with the Chu's Chop Suey sign. In the end, they couldn't find a taker.

In some cases, it involves getting a sign listed as a city landmark, which 2020 Omaha helped do for La Casa Pizzaria's sign, the mustachioed, mandolin-playing mascot named Peppi, in 2003.

For these groups, it's all about letting the business owners know what they've got. The signs are signs, yes, but they're also a piece of Omaha history. With urban landscapes looking ever more homogenized and samey with the chains and back-lit plastic signs, holdouts like these add a unique flavor. They make Omaha Omaha.

"There are things you don't notice in your environment," Tooker said, "until you look at them and see what they do and how they function.

"All of a sudden you realize how special they are."

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"One percent of what we do anymore is neon,” said Terry Rush, sales and operations manager of Omaha Neon Sign Co., a 90-year-old company. “Very few customers of ours request it.”

1 percent neon. At a business that has neon in its name.

A lot of this 1 percent is residential, man cave decor. There's also some restoration and repair.

Omaha Neon did a restoration of the Miller Electric Company sign at 2501 St. Mary's Ave.

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In 1935, around neon's heyday, the family-owned company Signworks (then called Neon Products Co.) opened in Omaha. Their specialty was, of course, neon. Everything from big business signs to blinking billboards to behind-the-bar novelty items. The family even owned a neon car.

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The car rode low because of the weight of all the transformers needed to light up the neon.

Signworks made a lot of iconic Omaha signs. La Casa's Peppi, the Roberts Dairy sign at 2901 Cuming St. (which Signworks recently helped convert to the Hiland Dairy sign).

The neon on the Brodkey Jewelers building, formerly at 16th and Harney Streets.

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Photo provided by Signworks

For the Qwest Center sign (before it became CenturyLink Center Omaha), Signworks used about 3,000 feet of neon tubing glass to light the letters.

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Now neon makes up a relatively small part of Signworks' business. The company took "Neon" out of its name for that reason.

But even as times change, the company has stayed committed to keeping Omaha's old signs shining.

"We're still connected to these signs," said Gabrielle Ryan, vice president of Signworks and great-granddaughter of the company's founder. And so some of Signworks' biggest endeavors of the last few years have been the full restorations (or modifications) of many of the aforementioned classic signs ...

Like Roberts Dairy

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Charlie Graham

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La Casa

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Piccolo Pete's at 2202 S. 20th St.

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Wolf Brothers at 7001 Dodge St.

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And Sullivan's Bar at 40th and Farnam

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A full restoration involves taking down the sign, bringing it into the shop, rewiring and replacing the neon units, blasting off the layers of old paint and rust and repainting the sign as close to the original as possible. This last part is aided immensely by the fact that Signworks often made the signs they are now restoring. They still have the old, crinkly drawings and plans on file and can easily refer back to the design and colors to preserve the original intent.

Signworks still has a glass bender solely dedicated to the neon signage. Her name's Karen Chaka, and she's been bending glass for 26 years. With the increased use of the more cost-efficient LED lighting in last decade or so, Chaka said, neon's definitely become more of a novelty. This makes her craft rarer every year.

"All of the coolest signs are neon," she said. "Those are the signs you recognize and remember. Hands-down, neon."

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Karen bending glass in the Signworks shop.

For Chaka, much of Signworks' neon work involves repair, restoration and the personalized items that go in bars and basements. There are still new businesses wanting to use neon, though, making Chaka's skill not only increasingly rare but increasingly valuable.

It costs a lot to restore and maintain these signs. And a neon sign's going to run up a higher utility bill than newer lighting tech.

LED lights, said Omaha Neon marketing director Tim Coyle, "are a lot cheaper than fluorescent or neon. Your operating costs will come down."

Despite the cost ($11,000 for a full restoration in 2008, plus upkeep, utilities, idiots with rocks), keeping the Peppi sign at La Casa Pizzaria was never even a question, said general manager Nicole Jesse.

Peppi stays. Obviously.

“My grandfather came up with the design,” Jesse said. “It's just been a part of our business for so long. I don't know if we ever made a conscious decision. Peppi just became iconic.”

Sullivan's Bar owner Dan Houlihan's sign has faced a little more adversity. Years back, his sign was hit by a truck and needed a full restoration. Even though the restoration would cost him around $6,000, he said he didn't hesitate for a second.

“It's an icon that's been there for over 60 years,” he said. “It's a classic. They simply don't make them like that anymore.”

Houlihan said he thinks business owners with historic signage are only recently starting to become aware of what they have.

“We're starting to realize these things are going to be extinct if we don't leave them be.”

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How neon works

There's a lot more to it than this, but here it is in a nutshell:

Feed electricity to a glass tube full of neon gas, it gives off a pinkish-red color.

Feed electricity to a tube full of argon gas, it gives off a blue color.

Give the neon- or argon-filled glass tubes a phosphorous coating, and you get other colors.

A key thing to take away is that a lot of the neon you see isn't actually neon.


A short history lesson

Right before the start of the 20th Century, a Brit named William Ramsay discovered neon gas. About a decade later, a French entrepreneur named Georges Claude displayed the first neon lamp in Paris. From there, neon lighting spread everywhere, eventually to the U.S., where it became an extremely popular advertising method for the next few decades. And not just for big businesses but mom-and-pop shops.

Though Las Vegas' rise in the 1950s ignited a renewed interest in neon throughout the rest of the country, its prominence faded over the next several decades, making way for video displays and plastic signs lit by fluorescent tubes and eventually LEDs.

(Historical info largely taken from Christoph Ribbat's "Flickering Light: A History of Neon," probably the best book on American neon ever to be written by a German. You can get a good roundup of the book's highlights in this Slate review.)

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