What San Jose can learn from the Neon Museum in Las Vegas

The idea of ​​creating a neon sign park in San Jose had been floating around for a while. Curators, neon enthusiasts and fans of roadside architecture all love the concept — and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez even proposed a neon park for the fairgrounds in 2019 — but a solid vision of how to create it has yet to emerge.

History San Jose has several vintage signs in its collection, the most prominent being the Orchard Supply Hardware arrow sign that perches next to an OSH wagon in History Park (and had its own dramatic history of theft and salvage there). a few years ago.) But there’s also the big “E” of the Emporium that once stood in Almaden Fashion Plaza, the sign of Mel Cotton’s Sporting Goods, the “Diving Lady” sign of the City Center Motel, and the Greyhound bus station sign.

Most of them are stored behind closed doors and rarely seen by the public. But what form might a historic sign park take in Silicon Valley if those signs could be on display? There’s a good — albeit grand — example in Las Vegas, where retired Sin City ensigns have found a home and a new life at the Neon Museum, a tourist attraction that attracts visitors more interested in history than blackjack.

Certainly, Vegas has many more neon and electric light signs in its history. There are over 800 panels in the collection of the Neon Museum, of which approximately 250 are displayed in “The Boneyard”. However, Neon Museum executive director Aaron Berger says it’s not about dominating visitors, it’s about telling the story of a community.

“Our audience is very diverse, and they get to get a better understanding and perspective of Las Vegas history by coming to the Neon Museum,” he said. “The medium we use to tell these stories is through signs.”

The Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino neon sign, on display at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, tells the story of the city’s desegregation. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group)

For example, the huge neon pink Moulin Rouge, the city’s first non-segregated hotel and casino, helps tell the story of Las Vegas’ black artists, visitors and residents. With that in mind, Berger wants to create tours unique to this experience, or for that of women or LGBTQ or Latinx communities.

San Jose could follow this model, using tours and signs that could tell stories about its agricultural past, suburban boom, car culture and the influx of immigrants from Italy, Mexico and Vietnam. . San Jose CEO Bill Schroh Jr. agrees that a neon sign park would be an important addition to the organization’s cultural and historical focus.

“Neon signs are just another way to tell our collective story,” Schroh said. “Not only are they works of art, but they also tell the story of their creation and the business they once proudly fostered. They are not just advertisements, but important cultural artifacts of a bygone era.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 29: The full moon rises over the Orchard Supply Hardware neon sign at History Park in San Jose, Calif. on Tuesday, December 29, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

You might be surprised to learn that only 24 of the 250 panels on display at the Neon Museum are restored and illuminated for nighttime tours. But the Neon Museum managed to bring a collection of 40 unrestored signs to life in a show called “Brilliant!” The outdoor audio-visual experience, created by experiential designer Craig Winslow, uses music and recorded sound through 24 speakers, along with 360-degree projection mapping, to take visitors from the height of Las Vegas in the present.

As the San Jose collection grows, this could be a way to present some signs without costly and time-consuming restoration.

Signs in San Jose don’t usually match the scale of Vegas releases, like the 80-foot-tall Hard Rock Cafe guitar. But for something like the towering Western Appliance sign, the Las Vegas Sign Project provides a template with a collection of nine restored signs displayed on Las Vegas Boulevard. West San Carlos Street would make a wonderful neon walk from downtown to Santana Row/Valley Fair.

SAN JOSE, CA – JUNE 20: The Stephen’s Meat “Dancing Pig” sign on Montgomery Street was re-lit Thursday night June 20, 2019 in San Jose, Calif. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

But for Ken Middlebrook, curator of collections at History San Jose, preserving these historic artifacts is as important as making them available to the public. While keeping these signs “in the wild” is an appealing idea to some, Middlebrook points out that Stephen’s Meat Co.’s “Dancing Pig” sign was restored on Montgomery Street in 2019 but has since been repeatedly vandalized. requiring work.

His vision is less glitzy than the Vegas version: a neon courtyard plaza, inspired by that of the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, with a stage and tables that could provide rental income that could help with maintenance and to restoration. As with the restoration of the neon signs, the project would require serious fundraising. “He just needs community support,” Middlebrook said.

Berger, executive director of the Neon Museum, says the most important step is the one San Jose has already begun. “Preserve what you can and keep it safe as best you can,” he said, noting that the Neon Museum started as a nonprofit in 1996 but hasn’t. only opened its doors to the public in 2012. this sign. Give yourself time to evolve.

The Western Appliance sign has been an icon on West San Carlos Street in San Jose since 1962.

About Elaine Morales

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