Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nutty for Neon

I am a neon nut. We'll travel well out of our way to get a glimpse of some magnificent roadside signage, day or night, new or old, big or small, lit or dark. Sometimes the sun-baked signage that shares a trip back in time, a faded glimpse of a bypassed route, is the most interesting of all. The most thrilling perhaps is the vintage signage long dark that has been painstakingly brought back to life. 

With its wealth of historic highways, vintage motels, cafes, taverns and roadside attractions, Arizona is home to a great array of neon beckoning to travelers. Historic highways 60, 66 and 89A are some of the best native habitat for neon signs. Here are some of my favorites...


Highway 60

The Starlight Motel on Route 60 in Mesa features a sleek animated diver leaping from the top of the towering neon sign, into a splash of blue water. Since 1960 the Diving Lady was a beacon for travelers from the east announcing their arrival in town. In subsequent years, she symbolized an earlier time, when the motel still had a pool, and when Mesa was still at the sleepy edge of the desert. In October of 2010 the sign was knocked over and destroyed by a severe thunderstorm. Things looked grim for the Diving Lady, but she made a comeback in 2013, rebuilt with donations from the public eager to see her figure leaping into the night air over Mesa once more. 

Mesa's Highway 60 is home to an excellent collection of vintage neon, including the display for Bill Johnson's Big Apple, created by the same sign builder who originally built the The Diving Lady, Paul Millet.

Further southeast on 60, the road takes you to the interesting vicinity of Superior, Miami and Globe, all picturesque historic mining towns each with heaping helping of classic signage. 

Highway 60 to the west of Phoenix is also rich with vintage neon, though much of it rural and in semi-disrepair yet still striking, artistic and evocative of Arizona's long history as a snowbird paradise. We've pulled many a U-turn in Aguila, to snap shots of Burro Jim's fun donkey-themed sign and the chipped, faded and gloriously broken Sunset Motel sign.

Route 66

Perhaps Arizona's biggest bounty of neon occurs on Route 66, a necklace of midcentury magnificence from Holbrook to Kingman. Business 40, a.k.a Route 66, is certain to please any neon nut. Highlights include an abundance of classic cafes: Joe and Aggie’s in Holbrook, the Brown Mug across the street from Winslow’s La Posada Hotel, Flagstaff’s Grand Canyon CafĂ©, the “World Famous” Sultana Bar in Williams, and the Snow Cap in Seligman. Seligman is a tiny town with a disproportionately outsized collection of neon motel signs attracting visitors from as far away as Europe and Asia. Naturally, the Mother Road is heavy on hotel and motel business, with each property competing to catch the eyes of road trippers driving by with their ever more flashy neon. Kingman’s Hilltop Motel sign is a frequently photographed Route 66 icon.

My first job upon arrival in Arizona was working as a front desk clerk at Flagstaff's Hotel Monte Vista. It's red-hot roof sign invited rail travelers from afar, though sometimes it was on the fritz and beckoned guests to the "EL VISTA" or "HOT MON STA".

Highway 89A
     Along Historic 89A through Yavapai County we enjoy lots of brightly lit signage, small and large. My town, Clarkdale, is home to two glowing beauties: the Main Street Cafe's very succinct message "GOOD FOOD" and the neighboring 10-12 Lounge's original sign from it previous incarnation, re-installed on its new structure rebuilt on the footprint of the original tavern.

The animated neon arrow of the View Motel on Cottonwood's Main Street directs travelers up the hill to the 1940s-built property, and its view of the bustling Verde Valley below. 


For decades along Historic Highway 89A, the Shep's Liquors/Package Goods sign was a well-weathered sentinel announcing arrival in Old Town, even long after the original Shep's business was a distant memory. Five years ago, the Ledbetter Law Firm renovated the adjacent vintage motor-court for use as office space. In conjunction, they also renovated the liquor store sign, replacing the letters to read "Welcome: Old Town". In October of 2009 a celebration was held to ignite the new neon, drawing a crowd of Verde Valley dignitaries and residents to cheer the new beacon for Old Town. Of course I was there, and the moment they flipped the switch we all shouted in glee. For many long time locals they could barely remember the last time that sign lit up the night. 

Prescott, Arizona's original territorial capitol, is a city rich with history, and naturally rich with classic neon, especially on Whiskey Row. The Palace, a Prescott landmark, is famous for its guests the Earp brothers, and its appearance in films like "Billy Jack" and "Junior Bonner". Their neon signage is dwarfed by its massive architecture, and still charmingly features the logo for Arizona's A-1 Beer, long defunct.

Why am I so kookoo for neon? Am I hypnotized by the pretty colors and intoxicating glow? The artful script? The insistent arrows and graceful Googie-style swoops? Am I sentimental for a different time, a simpler time long before I was even born? Yes, probably all of these things. The scene in Disney's "Cars" where the neon of "Radiator Springs" (inspired by an amalgam of Arizona's Route 66 towns) comes back to life always gives me goose-bumps and causes me to get a lil' choked up.

Celebrate our state's classic, fantastic neon, whether it's old and new, glossy or faded, working or broken. Neon! It's a gas! 

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