The philosopher Luis de Miranda once wrote that the neon wears “the poetry of the nights. It’s a good feeling, and one that Len Davidson would surely agree with.
Davidson was just in his twenties working at the University of Florida in the 1970s when he and a friend recalled the old neon signs from their youth. A native of Philadelphia, Davidson spoke wistfully of an old Pep Boys sign depicting company founders Manny, Jack and Moe.
That conversation sparked a love for neon for Davidson, first with a pop-up neon-themed restaurant called The Gamery, a converted old clothing store whose ceiling he plastered with signs. (“I had the ghost of a neon sign in my consciousness growing up in Philadelphia, a place called Lévis hot dogs that had a 13-foot neon hot dog up front, ”he says. “I used to go there when I was a kid after watching basketball games with my dad.”) Then came an apprenticeship with a neon store in Gainesville, and now his new one. Philadelphia Neon Museum. The principle of the museum is twofold: to dazzle spectators with some 130 illuminated screens and to offer them a lesson in quasi-history, showing what life was like when the brightest window often had the longest line of customers. Now 74, Davidson hasn’t expected to run the museum for too long; he hopes it can eventually become a non-profit organization.
Davidson spoke with Atlas Obscura on his sociological fascination with lighting, the sizeable cost of restoring old signs and the best places in the United States to see neon in the open.
How did your collection start?
While I was in Florida and then in Philadelphia, I started collecting old neon signs. I used to wander between Florida and New Orleans, going to sign stores. So I started collecting there and once I moved to Philly I continued to collect as I set up this sign business to make new neon signs. A few that I have gotten from auctions on places like eBay. But more often than not, I wander around Philadelphia and the Northeast, driving through the Old Quarter, seeing vacant businesses and broken signs in the windows, going to talk to traders. For example, I go to a jewelry store, where they might have a sign in the window, and I will start talking to the owner who says, “I have an old neon sign that doesn’t work in the basement” and he tells me. sells it. Sometimes it’s just signs that are dropped and you find the owner of the building, and you get it that way. I traded with other people, I went to the flea markets.
A guy called me from Jacksonville, Illinois, and he had a Simple Simon and the Pieman Howard Johnson sign, made in the 1950s. He wanted to donate or sell the sign to a museum and we ended up getting on a plane to rent a U-Haul truck and bring his sign back to Philadelphia. I developed a huge collection of neon lights and wanted a permanent space to exhibit it.
You have made neon the work of your life. Why are you so fascinated by this?
There are a lot of things about the job that I can talk about. It is extremely difficult to do. It takes you at least two years to burn your fingers and cut your hands before you even become a beginner. But I’m really a sociologist by training, and it’s really the quality of popular art that pushed me to do it. I’m more interested in roaming around, finding old signs, and meeting strange people who have been working in the neon business for years.
The people who designed the signs were usually mom and dad signs. So if you wanted this neon lobster, the person who drew the pattern wouldn’t be really trained in the art; they would be more inclined to watch cartoons when neon became really popular in the 1930s and beyond – the golden age of cartooning and comics. So there was this common man, folk art mentality that went into the making of signs. This attracts me a lot because I have always been very interested in outdoor art.
What are you looking for in a neon sign?
The things that make these signs truly wonderful are the pictorial quality, the complexity of the images, as well as the supports – many signs that were made with porcelain enamel, which is a much more durable and beautiful background material. for neon than painting. Some of these giant signs are called extravagances and spectacular neon lights; very little remains in the United States. At the very top of the hierarchy would be pictorial signs on porcelain enamel which are extravagant and lively.
In Philadelphia there was a big equipment maker called Giles and Ransoms, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s they made a double-sided bulldozer, porcelain animated with a man sitting on top and changing gears; as the speed changed, the steps of the bulldozer turned. This kind of sign is the epitome of what interests me. But there are very few left.
Has the recent neon explosion helped your business?
It really is a double-edged sword: as neon signs have become more popular, their value has increased. You can go to eBay and find a neon sign for thousands of dollars. I can get and restore signs cheaper than most because I have been in the neon business. I mean it cost thousands of dollars, but I don’t spend $ 25,000 for a sign on eBay, I find that $ 25,000 sign for $ 500 or nothing and then restore it.
This popularity is great because it prevents the destruction of signs, but on the other hand, it means that collectors all over the world can bid on signs that truly belong to Philadelphia.
How do you see the relationship between a sign and the place where it was made?
If a sign needs to be destroyed, I will put it in my museum. But the signs are representative of the communities in which they were built, and they should be maintained and remain in those communities, even after businesses close.
We’ve moved to big box stores and Amazon, and people are moving to a city like Philadelphia and they don’t really have neighborhood shopping streets. They might think so, but compare it to the way Philadelphia was structured 50 years ago: you might have a few convenience stores, a few streets with a few restaurants, but it’s very rare in Philadelphia to find shopping streets where people go to buy their products. The Neon Museum strives to present this story to people. So, this is really a statement about capitalism too. Sometimes I think of the museum as a museum of American history disguised as a neon museum.
Have you always thought of a museum like this?
I always had the idea that I could make the museum a roadside attraction, move to the countryside to a big barn, and people would ride in cars and I would sit on the porch in a rocking chair and was charging people a dollar. But that’s not the case – my wife isn’t willing to leave town to go live in a dark place where we can become a roadside attraction. [Laughs]
Over the past 30 years, I have looked at many places to exhibit neon, mainly for short term exposures. About two years ago I signed a contract with an organization called NextFab, which is an incubator space in Philadelphia that teaches students a variety of skills: metalworking, woodworking, 3D printing, and more. They had taken over a one-block building and half of the building was converted into tenants. I became one of the tenants and set up my neon museum there. It took about a year to move all these gigantic signs and hang them up.
How much will it cost to power all the neon lights in the museum?
I don’t know yet, to tell you the truth. NextFab billed each of the tenants monthly rent and utilities. They recently implemented a count for individual spaces. So I haven’t received an invoice yet, but it will be substantial – there are lots and lots of circuits where we use neon signs, but neon is relatively efficient to operate and there are electronic transformers – rather than magnets – and they consume much less energy than the old ones.
Where are the best places to see neon lights in the wild?
There are not a lot. The west coast is more attentive. Portland and Seattle, there are beautiful neon lights in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But probably the best city is Austin. The problem in general, however, is that there are fewer and fewer tube benders, and there is an interest in neon, but much of the interest is more in neon as a ‘art. While that is wonderful, there isn’t a great way for many artists to support themselves through neon, as opposed to when there were large neon signs along the freeway and in the streets. store windows. The jury is sort of out: some people say there is a neon revival, and others say there are too few tube benders and sign shops left.
This interview has been edited and condensed.