October 13, 2012 – February 10, 2013
Since 1996 Reno native Will Durham has saved, collected and restored many of the neon signs he grew up admiring that might have otherwise been destroyed. In the process, he helped save the iconic Reno history that is connected to them. With many significant pieces of his collection included in the exhibition, a collaboration of preservation and passion will certainly highlight nostalgic and optimistic memories for Reno visitors and residents alike.
Main Text Panel
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages—the Light Circus is about to begin! From flashing incandescent bulbs to candy-colored neon tubes, brilliant light takes center stage in The Light Circus: Art of Nevada Neon Signs. This exhibition of vintage neon signs celebrates a bygone era when flickering neon and chaser lights graced many of Nevada’s most iconic restaurants, casinos, hotels, and business establishments. Many of the signs included in this rare collection have not been seen publicly since they illuminated street-side locales decades ago. For well over a decade, Reno collector Will Durham has worked to build this stunning collection of vintage neon signs. For the past year, Durham and the Nevada Museum of Art spent countless hours restoring the light fixtures, controls, and electrical wiring of these signs, along with their painted and porcelain surfaces. For Durham, who acquired his first sign in 1996, collecting them has been a labor of love. In many cases, he has gone to great lengths to save signs that would have otherwise been discarded. Salvaging this collection took years of persistence, but Durham recognized that saving the work was crucial to preserving Nevada’s history—and that sharing them with the public was even more important. The Museum is proud to be a part of this important historic preservation project and pleased to present them to you.
Lead sponsorship provided by The Bretzlaff Foundation Major sponsorship provided by Earl and Wanda Casazza, IGT, E. L. Cord Foundation and George and Irene Drews Supporting sponsorship provided by E. L. Wiegand Foundation Additional support provided by City of Reno Arts and Culture Commission, Charlotte and Dick McConnell and the Nevada Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency
No other Reno hotel casino has enjoyed such a storied past as the Mapes. When its Art Deco-styled façade was completed in 1947, it was the tallest building in Nevada. With twelve stories, three hundred rooms, forty suites, seven retail shops, a casino, and an elegant penthouse nightclub known as the Sky Room, it embodied the best of sophisticated entertainment and architectural grace. The Mapes Family spared no expense in its construction, and at the time it was compared to the luxurious Plaza Hotel in New York and the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Headliners at the Sky Room included Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Liberace, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Mickey Rooney. For several months in 1960 the Mapes hosted the cast and crew of the popular film The Misfits, including Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift. An economic downturn and increased competition from other hotels and casinos eventually led to the closure of the Mapes on December 17, 1982. The property passed through many owners, until the City of Reno proposed the building for commercial and residential use. No plans were implemented, and despite community protests and lawsuits, the Reno City Council voted in 1999 to demolish the building. On January 30, 2000 the iconic building was imploded. The National Trust for Historic Preservation had placed the building on their list of Most Endangered Sites—and it was the first building on that list to ever be destroyed.
These letters once graced the façade of the historic Nevada Club on Virginia Street. In 1946, Lincoln Fitzgerald and his associates, seeking refuge from legal prosecution in Detroit, moved to Reno and became partners with Harry and Ed Robbins in "Robbins Nevada Club,” which the brothers had opened in 1941. The men from Detroit had a notorious past—they had been associated with that city’s organized crime scene and operated the Chesterfield Club Gambling House until 1946, when the government began a crackdown on illegal gambling operations. The Nevada Club became a popular gambling operation in Reno, thanks in great part to the large number of slot machines and the longtime customer favorite: the “single-zero” Monte Carlo-style roulette wheel. In 1949, Fitzgerald was extradited to Michigan, where he was found guilty of illegal gambling practices and forced to pay heavy fines. In 1956, Fitzgerald purchased the Nevada Club outright and became the sole owner. The following year he was shot by an unknown assailant in his driveway at 123 Mark Twain Avenue in Reno. Although he never fully regained his health, he and his wife Meta moved from their home into an apartment with a bulletproof door on the Nevada Club property. From 1956 until 1983, the couple ran the daily operations of The Nevada Club and later the Nevada Lodge and Fitzgerald's Hotel and Casino. Fitzgerald died in 1981, and Meta sold the properties to Lincoln Management. The Nevada Club closed in 1997.
Van Ness Auto
Redwood City, California
One of the few signs in the exhibition that is not originally from Nevada, this jovial gentleman once welcomed customers to an auto parts store in Redwood City, California, just south of San Francisco. The establishment was most likely given its name to associate it with San Francisco’s famous Van Ness Auto Row. Will Durham likes to point out, “Like a lot of Nevadans, Van Ness was not born here. After years in the auto industry in Northern California, I encouraged him to move to Reno. For the last ten years he has served as the ringmaster of the Light Circus.”
Deux Gros Nez
One of Reno’s most legendary business establishments, Deux Gros Nez (which translates to “Two Big Noses”) is considered by many to be the first real coffee house in Reno. Founded by Tim Healion and John Jesse in 1985, it earned its reputation as a great meeting spot and the only place to find a frappe or latte for nearly twenty years. Although “the Deux” closed in 2007, its spirit lives on through the annual international bike race known as the Tour de Nez.
The Gambler, El Rancho Motel
Will Durham retrieved this sign from the El Rancho Hotel, located about an hour east of Elko, just off of Interstate 80. He explains, “In 2008, the building was damaged beyond repair in a serious earthquake. I was able to preserve this sign before the new owner did a major remodel on the façade. When I drove through Wells later, I saw a massive crack in the building where this sign once hung.”
The Swimmer, Zephyr Motel
The sign that started it all, this was the first acquisition Will Durham made for his collection in 1996. He now has more than 43 signs in his collection—only a portion is on view in this exhibition. “We backed a truck up and stood on the camper shell to take the sign down,” Durham explains. “The first thing I learned about neon signs is that they are framed in steel and are very heavy. We came close to breaking our backs and dropping the sign in the process of taking it down.”
The Holiday Hotel-Casino first opened in Reno at the corner of Mill and Lake Streets in December of 1956. Its eight-story tower overlooked the Truckee River and had fifty slot machines. In 1999, the Holiday property was sold at a public auction, re-built and re-opened as the Siena. This sign almost didn’t make it into Will Durham’s collection. He recalls, “I had arranged to preserve the Holiday signs in advance, but apparently the demolition crew didn’t get the word. I happened to drive by as all the signage was being ripped down by the claw of a backhoe. I was able to save this last remaining sign.”
A popular watering hole in downtown Sparks for many years, the Buffalo Bar finally closed its doors on Victorian Avenue in 2001. After two years of discussion and negotiation with the owner of the bar, Will Durham finally received word of the date that the bar would close. “The manager informed me that he planned to blow up the sign as part of the grand opening for the new club,” Durham recalls. “Nothing says, we welcome your business like flying shrapnel and mercury! It’s a good thing that reason prevailed.”
Stinker’s Truck Stop Bar
Los Angeles, California
Although based on a historical advertising character, this is the only contemporary sign in the exhibition. It was commissioned by Bobby Green, the owner of the short-lived Truck Stop Bar in Los Angeles as a tribute to the longtime gasoline and service stations known as Stinker Cut-Rate Gas Company. The company was based in Idaho and the skunk character was nicknamed Fearless Farris, after one of the original company owners Farris Lind. Stinker Stores continue to operate today under different ownership. This particular sign never hung alongside a highway. Rather, it was displayed over the Truck Stop Bar decorated with trucker kitsch and taxidermied skunks that occasionally released puffs of steam from beneath their tails.
This sign, featuring Bucky, the Nevada Club cowboy, stands as a tribute to longtime commercial artist and illustrator Lew Hymers (1892-1953). For many years, Reno-born Hymers was known for his illustrated caricatures of the region’s movers and shakers, which appeared regularly in the “Seen About Town” column of the Nevada State Journal and later the Reno Gazette Journal. During his prolific career as a commercial artist, he produced logos, signs, advertisements, and cartoons for the Reno Rodeo, The Bank Club, Reno Brewing Company, and The Sportsman—just to name a few. His distinctive style was widely and easily recognized, and eventually became known nationally when he published a resource book for commercial artists, Stock Cuts: A Catalog from the Cartoon Shop of Lewis Hymers.
One of Reno’s legendary western clothing stores, Parker’s Western Wear, first opened in the early 1920s on Center Street. George Parker started the business and was later joined by his younger brother Harry Parker, after he completed his service in World War II. In 1971, the brothers moved the business to the Barengo Building on Sierra Street, where it remained until it closed in 1999. For decades, Parker’s catered to working cowboys, politicians, dude ranch visitors, Hollywood stars, and anyone else in need of a good Stetson hat, cowboy boots and a pair of Levi’s. Levi’s 501 jeans started at $3.00 a pair, or were discounted to $2.50 if you brought in that little red pocket tab! John Wayne shopped at Parker’s while he was filming The Shootist in the mid-1970s, as well as actors who were in Reno to film The Misfits in 1960. Locals will remember the creaking hardwood floors, the smell of leather and wool, and always a friendly greeting extended to anyone who walked through the door.
El Cholo Café
Las Vegas, Nevada
This sign for El Cholo Café, an early Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas in the 1950s, brings to light important issues related to Nevada’s cultural demographics and how perceptions and stereotypes of cultural communities can be shaped by commercial advertising. Historically, the word “cholo” was used in the United States along the Mexican-American border as a term referring to working class people of Mexican or Mexican-American descent. In this case, the term “el cholo,” coupled with the pejorative image of the “sleeping Mexican” makes the sign highly charged and potentially controversial. Despite its long history as a denigrating term, the word cholo was turned on its head and used as a symbol of pride in the context of cultural movements of the 1960s. An entire chain of restaurants in Southern California embraced the term as the name for their restaurants beginning in the 1920s.
Harold and Raymond Smith started Harolds Club in 1935 with a $500 loan from their father Harold “Pappy” Smith. The Smith family took great pride in their establishment and the club grew steadily over the years. By 1967, Harolds Club was the largest gambling business in Reno—and the first casino to advertise non-gaming attractions. Harolds Club displayed a huge collection of firearms and memorabilia related to the American West, and featured Western-themed rooms such as the Roaring Camp Room, the Covered Wagon Room, and the Silver Dollar Saloon. It was the first casino in Reno to hire women as dealers. These letters will be familiar to many locals as those that framed the bottom of the historic seventy-feet-long Harolds Club mural honoring the “Pioneers of the Old West.” For fifty years, the mural was one of the most prominent features on Virginia Street. Even after the Smiths sold the club in 1970, and up until Harolds Club closed in 1995, the mural remained in place. Four years later the mural was dismantled and eventually moved to the west side of the Reno Livestock Events Center, where it is still on view today.
Las Vegas, Nevada
These letters from the exterior of the Sahara Hotel and Casino were icons on the old Las Vegas Strip for many years. The Moroccan-themed Sahara Hotel was a favorite of the Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop—who helped to put Las Vegas on the map as entertainment capital of the world in the 1960s. Headliners to perform in the Sahara’s splashy showrooms included Tina Turner, Dean Martin, Johnny Carson, and Louis Prima. Scenes for Viva Las Vegas (1964) featuring Elvis were filmed at the Sahara. The Sahara Hotel and Casino closed in 2011.
Las Quatro Reinas
Will Durham would like to extend his thanks to the following people for their donations, assistance, and support in the preparation of this exhibition. The Cashell Family, Meg Glaser, Griff Durham, Kathleen Durham, Historic Reno Preservation Society, Tim Healion, SBE Entertainment, Pavich and Associates and Danielle Malley, and Shannon Giolito
- Theory behind neon sign technology dates back to 1675 when French astronomer, Jean Picard, observed a faint glow in a mercury barometer tube that had been shaken. The barometric light occurred because of static electricity, which was not understood at the time.
- In 1855 the geissler tube (named after Heinrick Geissler, a German physicist and glassblower) was invented. After electric generators were invented, inventors began conducting experiments with them, electrical power and various gases. When the geissler tube was placed under low pressure and electrical voltage was applied, the gas would glow.
- Process of sending electrical charge into a sealed glass tube filled with inert gas to create illumination was developed by inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). It is said that he had a tube that went around his lab and used the glow for light instead of incandescent lights.
- Basis system that is still in use today was developed and patented by George Claude in Paris in 1910.
- Inspired by the bright neon lights of Paris while vacationing there in 1923, Earl C. Anthony of Los Angeles brought home a neon light for his showroom.
- The first known neon sign to be hung in Nevada was in the window of the People’s Market in Elko. A picture of the market is dated 1928. A short time after this the first neon light lit-up Las Vegas. Tube Benders (term used by craftsmen)
- The process, which appears to be simple, takes years to master.
- Starts with a straight piece of glass tubing over a gas flame until the glass starts to “give” and is ready to form.
- To shape the heated glass tube, a cork is put in one end and a rubber hose is attached to the other end. The glass blower then gently blows air periodically to keep the tube’s diameter a constant size, while bending the tube to the desired shape.
- Using patterns that are drawn on paper to scale and in reverse, the letters and drawings are fabricated.
- Each letter is formed individually and then welded together using a hand torch that fuses the molten glass to one another.
- Explain to visitors that neon was originally developed in Paris and was then introduced to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century; ultimately becoming a part of both our historical fabric and mainstream identity today.
- Ask what some of the contributing factors might be to neon’s popularity in the U.S.
- Invite comments around specific uses of neon across the country throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
- Invite visitors to share memories they have of the businesses that the signs once adorned.
- Explain the decline in neon’s popularity in the 1960s and 70s, leading to the disposal of many signs.
- Ask guests to consider some of the social issues that were prominent of that era and if there is a possible connection.
- Invite further exploration of the signs in the exhibition while considering what they represent and if there is valid rationale behind their reputation as signs of social demise.
- Ask guests to consider the popularity and extensive use of neon signs in Nevada and what characteristics of both the state and neon make them a likely combination.
- Explain that in 1675 Jean Picard observed a faint glow in a mercury barometer tube that had been shaken. The glow being the first known neon reaction observed and being similar to today’s neon technology.
- Ask how it is possible this could have happened before the age of electricity.
- Invite guests to share thoughts on what early observers of neon light must have thought, not knowing what was creating such a glow.
- Explain to visitors that even though the signs are appealing artistically, their ultimate use was for advertising the business they adorned.
- Ask what messages the signs are portraying and what prospective customer they may be attempting to appeal to.
- Invite guests to consider how the creative advertising strategy of past eras differs from that of today.
- Explain the extensive growth in advertising from the late 19th century and into the early 20th century from a “goods on hand” approach to a more persuasive advertising of branded goods. The shift fueled by increased consumer spending and credit availability for large purchases and leisure-time activities.
- Ask if the popularity of neon signs could possibly be linked to this shift in advertising.
- Invite comments on why neon was a popular candidate for signage and advertising.