How Neon Glows On

May 2, 2019

Vibrant glowing tubes of neon have illustrated the Nevada story for a century, as they line quaint main streets and urban centers. The stories behind the bright and bended glass have also dominated our arts and culture coverage through the month of April in a series we called Sparked. Holly Hutchings took a deeper look into this part of our history with multiple stories. She talked to Bree Zender about the series and how neon lives on.

The story of Nevada’s neon is as varied as the pioneers who implemented the craft a hundred years ago.

Many of the signs created for the Silver State were made by YESCO. The company has been around almost as long as neon itself and is still run by the Young family. Thomas Young started the business in 1920. They estimate that their company has either crafted or done repairs on every sign in the region. Although based in Utah, the company has offices in Reno and Las Vegas to continue their ongoing presence in Nevada.

Senior Vice President Jeff Young says that their family has been the benefactor of wonderful people and work in our state. He says that although much of the technology from the 1920s has changed, neon has not. He thinks that longevity will see it through another century. They don’t have as many neon workers as they once did, but they still have numerous service teams working on the lights.

“We don’t see neon going away. Find me an old television set somewhere. They’re ending up in dumpsters or being recycled. You can’t find an old traditional TV except in a museum. Neon isn’t going to be that way because people are still going to want it. The look is just so unique and so intense. I don’t imagine that it ever completely goes away. I just don’t.”

Although many other places stopped using neon in the mid-century, Nevada's maverick identity only made us double down on our efforts and make more compelling signs. But, Nevada is obviously not the only hot spot for neon.

Last week, Neon Speaks, a symposium and festival, was held in San Francisco. Put on by San Francisco Neon, the goal was to educate and advocate for the legacy of the signs. In its second year, organizers say the gathering aimed to bring together artists, preservationists, small businesses and even some students to celebrate and share information on restoration and historic preservation.

Randall Ann Homan and her husband Al Barna are at the helm of the event. They’ve been working to tell people about the Bay Area neon for years. They also wrote the book, San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons. Homan says shifting the perception of neon from something that causes blight to art could help keep their city’s identity from dramatically shifting.

“San Francisco is changing and it’s becoming a corporate mall. You can complain all you want or you can do something about it. We think these vintage signs make it a good way to live. IT’s like a missing tooth in a smile. What you lose is that feeling of authenticity that this is a real place, not just a corporate, throw-it-up-overnight place.”

One of the big takeaways from this year was the feeling that neon is on a roll, yet there is still a lot of work to be done. Of course, another area rich in neon is Las Vegas. Preservation efforts to keep Fremont lined in neon are in place as part of the downtown overlay district regulations, which mandate certain amounts of neon on new signage and preservation of old signs within the iconic Fremont Street block.

Vegas also has the Neon Museum and boneyard, which opened in 2012. The museum restores and shows off signs from the golden age of Las Vegas. Relics from hotels like The Stardust and The Desert Inn line a gravel path that winds through this Vegas history. The museum also loans signs to the city, which displays them in medians around touristy parts of the town.

Believers in the vibrant element say there is no other art form that personifies the optimism of the early twentieth century, and they hope that belief in a brighter future will keep pushing neon into the next.