Like Barflies to a Flame: The Allure of Neon

Neon signs have drawn drinkers into bars since their invention, often making that unmistakable light inseparable from the experience of a night out. Chris Ross on the historic allure of neon and the bars still embracing its glow today.

neon signs bars history illustration dennis eriksson

When Toby Cecchini and Joel Tompkins took over and reopened Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar in 2013, they reinstalled the watering hole’s original vintage neon sign—and caused a small commotion in Cobble Hill.

Four months earlier, they had hired the shop Let There Be Neon to take the sign down, secure it in their studio and meticulously clean and repair the broken tubes and bends at the cost of a small fortune. Since the early 1950s, the red and green neon script had glowed above the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Henry Street, inviting passersby into the small, family-owned local institution for drinks. But as of 2007, when the owner retired, the sign had blinked off and the old bar inside was gathering dust behind the windows. Cecchini and Tompkins had not told anyone of their plans for the sign, and its reappearance was like the shocking return of long-lost relative who was feared dead.

“People were just crowding around the day they were reinstalling it,” Cecchini says. “Everyone had gathered and they were just ecstatic. People were saying, ‘When I saw that sign go down, I thought, those sons of bitches! But here it is, it’s back!’”

As Cecchini and Tompkins learned, it can be easy to underestimate the emotional connection that people attach to these fixtures. Having worked most of his career in Manhattan, Cecchini didn’t know what to expect from Brooklynites when they relaunched the bar. “But immediately when we opened, people started pouring in the door, saying how glad they were that we had saved the bar and, in particular, the sign,” he says. “People were just so relieved.”

For what might seem like a fairly innocuous technology, since its debut neon has served as a flashpoint for broader cultural trends, alternately attracting ire or awe depending on the nation’s mood. It’s this rich symbolic history—the ability to channel the cozy scuzziness of a 1970s hole-in-the-wall or the midcentury cool of a bustling diner—that has led a new generation of bar owners to embrace neon signage, with drinking establishments from New York to Austin featuring newly commissioned signs or restored old ones. Once called “liquid fire,” neon signs attract the human eye with an electric vitality that few other features of the modern streetscape can command. Imprinting on our minds with uncanny power, they act as landmarks in both space and memory, anchoring the spot where you tell the taxi driver to turn left, or that place where you had a date when you moved to the neighborhood.

Over time, neon has become as familiar to the mis-en-scene of bars and nightlife as the click of pool balls or the rat-a-tat of ice in a shaker. In many cases it becomes a kind of metonymy for the bar itself: Cecchini points out that the sign effectively removed their ability to rename the place. As long as the sign was on, it was going to be Long Island Bar. 

It turned out that neon signs were high-maintenance, difficult and expensive to repair, leading to the phenomenon of eerily flickering neon and their link with seedy establishments. After World Word II, many businesses didn’t have the resources to spare to fix the signs as they began malfunctioning and losing letters. “A lot of signs went dark and stayed dark, and suddenly this brand new neon was a little creepy,” says Lynxwiler. “America looked darker after the war.”

As our idea of neon increasingly becomes one shaped by historical import and the desire for preservation, there’s a Gatsby-esque touch to the way we project fantasies of the past into the present through these signs. “[Neon] signs are a touchstone for an earlier era,” says Thomas Rinaldi, author of the book New York Neon and the blog by the same name, which documents the city’s disappearing vintage neon signs. “They provide a certain comfort and solace. They stand for the city as you imagined it before you moved here.”

In Astoria, Queens, Jay Zimmerman and Derrek Vernon recently opened the casual cocktail bar Sekend Sun, complete with a huge neon sign in the backyard which shines through the glass doors in an amber, embryonic hue: “QUEENS.”

“Some of the first bars I went into, little dive bars, had neon signs,” says Zimmerman. “There’s something about the glow of it that sets the tone and the scene for a bar experience.” The sign has become such a hit on Instagram that they started a hashtag and contest to judge all the images of it taken each month—the winner gets a $50 gift certificate.

Chris Bostick, owner of the bar Half Step in Austin and a former manager at The Varnish in Los Angeles, has found similar success on social media with the neon sign at his bar, opened in 2013. A line of neat cursive in the front window reads: “you earned it.” He had it made by a local legend, neon crafter Evan Voyles. “It has a kind of subliminal effect,” says Bostick, who calculates that at least a third of the pictures taken of the bar are of the sign. “It invites in the curious.”

In the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas, which, like Austin, boasts a rich neon tradition, a glowing windmill is a familiar sight on the horizon. It’s fixed atop the Windmill Lounge, a friendly, low-key spot where you can get pitch-perfect Martinis and Margaritas. Like at Long Island Bar, the sign has outlasted its original owners and purpose, and given the place a name. “People would ask, ‘What are you going to call it?’” says Louise Owens, the owner. “And we’d say, ‘Well, there’s a windmill on top.’”

She finds that after a couple of cocktails, invariably some genius will give her very specific instructions on how to make it spin—she invites them to clamber on up the roof and give it a whirl. (No one’s figured it out yet.) She flicks the sign on when she opens at 4 p.m. In the hot Texas summer daylight, it’s invisible, but at night, “it’s like a beacon of hope.”

As much as we’ve come to identify neon with urban nightlife, neon signs adorned churches before they did bars, says Rinaldi. Dating back to 1902, they were the invention of French engineer Georges Claude, who capitalized on recent discoveries by chemists about the existence of noble, nonreactive gases. By applying electricity to gases sealed in glass tubes, he was able to create distinctive colors shaped by the glass into letters.

Neon was introduced to the States during Prohibition as an eye-catching form of advertising, embraced at first by corporations and chain stores as a symbol of bright, shiny, clean modernity. (Neon comes from the Greek word “neos,” or “new,” after all.)

“You could do anything with neon,” says Eric Lynxwiler, who gives tours of LA’s neon signs in conjunction with the LA Museum of Neon. “You could have a giant eagle with flapping wings. You could animate a woman walking across a billboard in her underwear.”

It was following Prohibition and into the early 1940s that neon first began to become associated with some of the more undesirable elements of city living, embodying garish, empty commercialism. When upstanding citizen George Bailey, hero of the classic 1946 Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, sees what his hometown of Bedford Falls would look like if he was never born, he’s treated to a vision of “Pottersville”: Named after movie’s villain, rich capitalist Henry Potter, the town’s thoroughfare is now harshly lit and flashing with neon like a mini-Las Vegas, advertising girls, booze and gambling.

Moreover, it turned out that neon signs were high-maintenance, difficult and expensive to repair, leading to the phenomenon of eerily flickering neon and their link with seedy establishments. After World Word II, many businesses didn’t have the resources to spare to fix the signs as they began malfunctioning and losing letters. “A lot of signs went dark and stayed dark, and suddenly this brand-new neon was a little creepy,” says Lynxwiler. “America looked darker after the war.”

Hard-boiled detective novels wrote neon’s new identity as a defining feature of the nocturnal landscape: luridly bright, artificial, often in disrepair. A neon sign appears in Raymond Chandler’s book Farewell My Lovely by the third paragraph, jutting out over the street to advertise “a second floor dine and dice emporium called Florian’s,” a spot which becomes central to the plot. The glow of neon was one of Chandler’s favorite textural devices, the appropriate shading for his broken world of compromised dames and by-hook-or-by-crook private eyes.

But the light would continue to beguile generations, each one giving it a new meaning, whether it was the Beats’ appropriation of neon in the 1960s as a symbol of liberated urban living, or appreciation of neon in the ’70s as an American art form. Today, neon signs—especially antique ones in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco—are considered heirlooms, carefully protected by landmark agencies as if they were the last living creatures of an extinct breed. They have outlasted waves of businesses, glowing steadfastly while owners have shifted hands and names and moved elsewhere. Like lighthouses, visible at great distances, they draw travelers through the darkness down highways and city avenues, promising that under the neon glimmer is a sanctuary, a place to rest and have a drink.

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