When Modern Neon shuttered their doors in Santa Barbara in 2002, it was the end of sixty-one years of neon domination is Santa Barbara. What happened? Where did all the neon go?
Neon is experiencing a resurgence across the country, and throughout the planet, perhaps as human creativity itself resurges. China and Japan have huge neon industries. The hundreds of neon signs you see without seeing every day – the Open and Vacancy and beer company signs – all come out of China now. Entire buildings are sheathed with neon and LED displays. Pedestrian malls, like Shanghai’s famous Nanjing Road, entice you into a world of drama and light.
In the United States, most would agree that the neon Mecca lies in the middle of the Nevada desert in Las Vegas. But other cities have robust neon cultures, however, including Seattle, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and of course, Reno.
But you don’t have to drive to Reno or Vegas to find a neon sign industry that still thrives near Santa Barbara. The city of Ventura has, after a period in the early 1960s of fighting the dreaded scourge, embraced neon. In the early 1960s, the Busy Bee Café on Main Street went toe-to-toe with the city in order to keep their neon signs and won. In the last few years, Ventura has not only embraced neon in their downtown corridors, but erected their own neon sign along the 101 at the site of the familiar old Loop’s Restaurant neon sign.
Planner Veronica Ledesma, with the Ventura Planning Department for 18 years, said that if a sign application for a business in the city of Ventura meets size criteria, it is an over the counter process. There is no higher review board. “We don’t address the creative, figurative or illustrative elements.” The only aspect requiring further review is an electrical permit and sign-off for electric signs.
“Santa Barbara’s process…” Ron Wilkinson lets the idea drift. “It’s two or three months to get a sign approved. And if you want something different, it’s five or six months more. Big corporations just give up.”
Ron Wilkinson was the previous owner of Vogue Sign in Oxnard, and Vogue Sign was the holding company for Modern Neon Sign of Santa Barbara. Modern Neon’s journey was closely entwined with Santa Barbara’s destiny during the mid-20th century. Modern Neon was Santa Barbara’s premiere sign company for decades, at one time responsible for designing and installing up to 75% of the neon in Santa Barbara. And neon was a central art form in Santa Barbara.
Opened at 19 West Ortega in 1941by Eldon Abbey, Modern Neon rode the crest of the neon wave in Santa Barbara. Their files, partially intact, hold hundreds of old hand-drafted designs from the early seventies onwards. Designs from the forties, fifties, sixties were not saved to Wilkinson’s knowledge. Consumate neon artists like Ernie Thompson and George Wheaton designed signs and bent the glass to make them. Their signs were in many ways a Santa Barbara signature.
In 1960, Modern Neon brought suit against the City of Santa Barbara for the city’s 1957 sign law that was to go into effect in 1962. The law forbade moving, lighted signs, and that encompassed many neon signs of the day. If the law were applied, the businesses impacted would be hit arbitrarily. Many signs would become obsolete and would have to be replaced.
When a revised ordinance passed in 1962, Eldon Abbey saw the writing on the wall and sold Modern Neon and Darville Signs, a company he owned in Ventura, to Robert Perkins of Vogue Signs of Oxnard. According to Wilkinson, who owned Vogue Signs from 1992 through 2002, “the climate in Santa Barbara was discouraging.”
Vogue maintained something of a shell game after they acquired Modern, advertising their own services as though they were local, and keeping Modern Neon intact as a satellite firm under their own name to create signs in other tri-county cities and to service Santa Barbara.
Modern remained at 19 West Ortega until 1976 when they moved to 512 East Gutierrez. Joe McCarthy, remembered by many people I talked to about Santa Barbara neon, was known throughout the tri-counties as the face of Modern Neon. Working with salesman Mack McCalley, he was listed as the owner starting in 1962, but was in reality the site manager for Vogue. “Joe was synonymous with Modern Neon,” Wilkinson said, “until his death in the mid-1990s.”
Ernie Thompson and George Wheaton were the master craftsmen of this period. Ernie Thompson designed and created the famous Blue Skies Mobile Park sign on Calle Real. Ernie retired in 1986 and for a time, maintained a neon shop at his home on Walnut Avenue.
Vogue finally closed up the Modern Neon factory in 1992 and leased a sales office in Santa Barbara, which quickly became a mail slot without personnel at 629 State Street. The phones with Santa Barbara numbers rang in Oxnard. It was at this point that Ron Wilkinson and partner George McGill purchased the company.
“We moved the Modern Neon production to Oxnard at that point,” Wilkinson explained. “The site in Oxnard is 10,000 square feet.” While there’s still a market for neon in Ventura and Oxnard, the neon fabrication has ceased in Oxnard. All of Vogue’s neon work is now outsourced to shops in the San Fernando Valley that have the demand to remain cost-effective.
Though Wilkinson sold the business in 2002 to Jack Woodruff, he stayed on as a salesman. “I love this work. I get to see things made here, rather than in China. I dress the night.”
“Santa Barbara,” he said, “takes an active interest in the design of signs. We design it with the customer. [The city] changes it to their specifications. And it won’t be what the customer wants.”
“The laws homogenized signage in Santa Barbara,” he said. “Santa Barbara by the Sea. West Covina by the Sea.”
Dave’s Signs in Ventura is where many of the Santa Barbara neon owners go for service today. I visited Dave Tilsner, for whom the company is named – he sold the firm to Chris and Brenda Compton in 2008. Tilsner stayed on as a designer.
“In the 1960s and 70s,” Tilsner says, “attitudes toward neon changed. There was a backlash. Ventura tried to stamp it out. Busy Bee had to fight for their signs. In Oxnard, Nao Takasugi, owner of the Asahi Market, which is now over 100 years old, fought with the city council there in the 1960s to keep their signs.” Takasugi’s battle with the city convinced him that someone with some business acumen should be on the City Council. He served on the council, became mayor, and eventually served as a State Assemblyman. They kept their neon signs.
“In some towns,” Tilsner said, “it’s coming back. Filmore has been neon friendly for a long time. Pasadena’s another town. Ventura is also one of those towns.” In Santa Barbara, Tilsner has worked with businesses that wanted new exposed neon. “It’s not impossible,” he said, “but you have to be willing to fight for it and pay the money.”
Dave’s, like Vogue, makes all kinds of signs, but at one time had two fulltime glass benders working neon. Now they’re down to one, Ramón Cervantes. Cervantes has been ‘bending neon’ since 1997. He’s been with Dave’s Signs for the last six years. I joined Ramón at their neon booth where he stepped me through a repair of a neon sign component.
“We get a lot of repairs,” Cervantes said. “And some new signs. We made the Ventura sign down there on 101.” Most signs use standard glass that runs $10 a foot or so. Classic neon glass comes from Milan, Italy, however, and costs up to $20 a foot.
“A lot of neon is now being used in channel signs,” Cervantes said. But LEDs are coming up fast. According to Dave Tilsner, they’re still more expensive to buy, but cheaper to own and maintain. But, “they’re getting cheaper.”
Previous posts on neon:
- Santa Barbara’s Neon Hey-Days
- The Dying of the Light: Santa Barbara Outlaws Neon
- A Pictorial Journey through Santa Barbara’s Neon Hey Days:
- Neon Liberation: Santa Barbara’s Neon Collector (coming!)
- Santa Barbara Neon Driving Tour (coming!)
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