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Neon's retro glow still burns bright in Buffalo

A reddish neon glow is expected to soon return sparkle to Parkside Candy’s chocolate-colored signs in University Heights, helping to restore the shop to its 1927 glory.

Neon is less in vogue these days with the rise of LED technology, but the artful use of the luminous, gas-discharge tubes – sometimes in combination with LED – continues to brighten theaters, shops, restaurants, motels, nightclubs and bowling alleys in Western New York.

“I don’t think there is anything that can compete with the beauty of a neon sign,” said Rick Cohen, who installed a new neon sign at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport in 2013. “We wanted to keep as authentic an appearance as possible. Nothing else glows like neon.”

[Photo Gallery: Making neon signs, a dying art]

The drive-in sign, which measures 15 feet tall and 30 feet wide, has the theater’s name in pink lettering, with a blue border around the listing of its five double features and red, white and blue accents. The yellow letters at the Starlite Snack Bar are ensconced in neon.

Cohen said the marquee is a key element of the Transit. “The drive-in is all about nostalgia, and it wouldn’t look right if we put up a contemporary sign. It wouldn’t have looked like a drive-in anymore.”

At the North Park Theatre, the marquee’s bright red, yellow, blue, green and orange colors – a combination of neon and LED lighting – signify the anchor of Hertel Avenue's commercial strip is open. The multicolored marquee was renovated in 2014 by Flexlume, the same Buffalo company that installed the eye-catching message board in 1941.

Back then neon made up a big part of Flexlume's business. Today, it only accounts for a small share because of LED lights, which are more energy-efficient (although neon has made advances), fragile, easier to install and need less maintenance.

Josh Hanzlian, owner of Providence Social on the West Side, preferred to have a yellow neon sign with red accents made by Flexlume when the restaurant opened three years ago. The neon highlights white letters that spell out the business' name on a black background lit by LED.

“I love tasteful neon. The sign was pretty much trying to go with the building when it was in its heyday,” Hanzlian said, referring to when the longtime nightspot Romanello’s Roseland was there.

“I like making things look beautiful, and bringing them back to life,” Hanzlian said. “The colors are more noticeable and traditional, and that’s why we went with them.”

Vino’s Ristorante, a fine dining restaurant in North Buffalo, has a small, classic neon sign in green with white letters. Kathleen Cangianiello, who owns the restaurant with husband Tony, said the couple restored the sign to lend a certain atmosphere after buying the restaurant 11 years ago.

“My husband wanted the old-school charm,” Cangianiello said.

Neon can be seen in signage at Schwabl’s Restaurant in West Seneca, at Nick Charlap’s Ice Cream in West Seneca and the Lake Effect Diner in the University District. The Swannie House and Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, two downtown Buffalo drinking establishments, also use neon, as does Cazenovia Liquors in South Buffalo. So do Tonawanda Bowling Center and Voelker's Lanes.

"At night, you can’t beat neon. It just glows,” Charlap said. “We have halo lighting, with lighting behind the sign that enhances the neon. That sign really pops at night.”

There are drawbacks in the winter, he said. Sensors detecting moisture from the cold – a fire prevention measure – will sometimes cause a section of the sign to go out, which may go back on again in drier weather.

Neon, however, shines brighter than LED on cloudy days and at dusk.

Neon signs are made out of glass tubes filled with inert gas. Neon gives off a red color, while argon generates blue. Colored neon signs are made with argon-filled glass tubes coated with fluorescent powders, with a small amount of mercury added for uniform lighting and brightness.

In Buffalo, a 50 percent mixture of neon and argon is used because of the cold climate. That causes the tube to run warmer and burn brighter to help offset the winter months. Fluorescent tubes, use the same gases and mercury as neon tubes.

Neon signs were unveiled in their modern form in December 1910 by Georges Claude at the Paris Motor Show. Claude's company, Claude Neon, sold the first neon sign in the United States in 1923 to a Packard car dealership. Before long, neon would be lighting up New York's Times Square, movie theater marquees in downtown Buffalo and businesses across the country.

Flexlume was once the largest maker and installer of neon signs. A sign in the shop's basement on Main Street, near West Ferry Street, has the word "Gas" with a yellow glow and a circle around it against a red background. It was Buffalo's first neon sign, built by the White Sign Corp. in September 1928 for the Hygrade Station at Tupper and Washington streets.

The rise of LED lighting early in the 2000s accelerated neon's decline. Michael Yost of Yost-Neon Displays, in West Seneca, is the last glass bender in Western New York.

"In neon's heyday, there were probably 20 people doing it," Yost said. "Now, I'm it. You have to go to Cleveland or Syracuse to find another glass bender.

"I probably spend around 20 to 25 hours a week working on neon, fabricating or bending glass," Yost said. "Fifteen years ago, there wasn't enough time in a week. The hours were almost unlimited."

Neon has remained a favored mood setter in movies, evoking both the glamour and, just as much so, the grime of city life.

“Enter the world of film noir, a world of darkness, ambiguity, and moral corruption,” reads a passage from “Film Noir, An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.” “Here, elevated train platforms tower above murky, narrow streets. Travel down these mean streets, lit intermittently by flashing neon lights.”

Petula Clark sang of neon more positively in her 1964 hit, “Downtown”: “Just listen to the music of the traffic of the city. Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.”

Little about making neon has changed over the years, Yost said.

"Neon is made today the same way it was done 100 years ago. Some of the equipment I have is 50 years old, and the new tools are no different. It’s all the same," he said.

Dwindling business and changes in federal regulations provide little incentive to produce neon signs, Yost said. The regulations required the removal of lead from the glass used for neon signs, making it harder to bend. A higher heat now must be used, with less cooling time.

"There's no room for mistakes," Yost said. "You either do it right the first time, or you throw it out. For someone who wants to learn this, I would say it’s extremely difficult. I couldn’t imagine learning now. It’s not forgiving."

Yost has grown to appreciate LED, and says there are situations where it makes more sense to use LED instead of or in combination with neon. Still, he considers neon to be more vibrant and attractive.

"Ruby red, soft and creamy white, fluorescent red," Yost said, ticking off neon's classic colors. "Those colors always look good if you’re doing a historic sign, or something you want to keep retro-looking."

Neon may not be used as much anymore, but Yost said there's still nothing like it.

"A nice neon sign," he adds, "is more eye-catching and attracts people to the business."

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