Over thirty years ago, on a business trip to Los Angeles, I was introduced to MONA, the Museum of Neon Art. Beyond fascinated and thoroughly mesmerized, at age 30, I returned home to figure how to become a neon artist. Neon manufacture requires fire, electricity and gases whose names appear on the periodic table (which scared me to death.) Neon also incorporates physics and chemistry (which were my worst subjects in school.) I was scared and intimidated but it did not stop me. Curiosity won out!
I have not thought about neon for about twenty-five years but I have recently discovered free streaming movies from the library. While not a fan of movies, I am on a quest to learn about them because my refugee stories are going to be turned into a movie and I have to figure out how to do it! I scanned the documentary section and found one on NEON. Memories flooded my broken brain and there were actually people I knew in the documentary including Lilly Lakich, the founder of MONA and my inspiration. My new African sons are encouraging me to document my history and that is how this story came to be.
A flood in my basement a few years back destroyed many photo albums. My interest in neon happened before digital so I imagine there are film negatives from that period, but who has time to sort through 50 years of photos. This put me on a quest to see if there were any photos remaining of my days in neon. I found a few which were poor at best. That gentle nudge returned me to the basement and I found an album somewhat intact which detailed it from the start.
The Value of First Husbands
This story must include my former husband Paul Warrenfelt and would not be complete or possible without him. Perhaps too I should thank him for leaving twenty-five years ago because without such a devastating blow to my entire being, I might not have become the person I am today. Paul was a mechanical engineer and he helped me realize my dream to create neon. We worked together to create Zephyr Neon Manufacturing Co Ltd. I believe it was my first corporation, but it was not my first business. Who knows why I incorporated! Zephyr means West Wind and we named it that after our favorite train. We were captivated by the Art Deco stainless steel train cars and the history of the Zephyr train routes through the Rocky Mountains.
We designed our dream home during a long train trip on this very route shortly after I discovered the Museum of Neon Art. That house incorporated a custom wall which had ever changing neon displays.
We worked together documenting the Zephyr history in neon. Now let’s see if I can get the story right. The California Zephyr started with her maiden trek in 1949 and she ceased operations in 1970. The stainless steel cars were named Silver “something or another” and there were 77 Silver-Names. There were thirteen cars per train including the dome cars for a spectacular view. The first route of the California Zephyr was from San Francisco to Chicago with 2,525 miles carefully planned to pass through the mountains during daylight hours and through the dessert and plains states at night.
The Rio Grande Zephyr operated from 1970 until 1983 with the route amended to include Denver, Colorado to Ogden, Utah, three days a week in each direction and that is where it got its name “Never on a Wednesday.” Amtrak was formed in 1971 and operated from Chicago to San Francisco, calling this train route San Francisco Zephyr. Railroads were power hungry and the story would include Denver and Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), Union Pacific (UP), Burlington Northern (BN), Southern Pacific (SP), Western Pacific (WP), Chicago Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q). Through this tumultuous time, in 1983 Denver and Rio Grande Western joined Amtrak and the route was changed to the present day Chicago to San Francisco and is now called California Zephyr.
Private Car Privilege
We had the rare privilege of riding in a privately owned rail car from the original California Zephyr Era that was both a dome car plus an end car to see the rear view. Oh my!
Neon Representation of the History of the California Zephyr
This is a terrible water-stained photo. I can’t make out the words that described the routes. The orange tubing of the Rio Grande matched the orange/route from Denver to Salt Lake City. The blue tubing of the Amtrak San Francisco Zephyr matched the blue route from Chicago to San Francisco. The modern day route of the California Zephyr combines both routes. What you cannot see in this picture is the HO model train cars resting on a track above the words Rio Grande. These were replica trains by Broadway Limited Imports.
I gave this piece to a dear friend of mine Lee Tyler. Perhaps one day I can revisit and relive a memorable time in my life. Speaking of Lee Tyler, we crafted a wall piece for a surprise birthday present. The birthday cake matched the neon. I made it too! It was the musical score “Money (its a gas)” from his favorite group Pink Floyd.
Caspian Sea and Caviar
The fun began when I created a table centerpiece for a party to announce the creation of Zephyr Neon Manufacturing Co. Ltd. I loved fresh caviar and had it flown in for the event. I created an outline of the Caspian Sea where my favorite caviar came from. I have always been surrounded by very intellectual people and I gave a number of hints as to what the centerpiece represented. All I had to do was give the hint of the home of fresh caviar and my brainy, nerdy friends all simultaneously shouted “Caspian Sea.” Hmmm…
A Million Pieces of Glass
Our first commercial job was Mami’s Fine Soaps in Claypool Court in 1988. We got off to a horrible start when we took down their main sign in order to trace it to produce one for their new store at Greenwood Park Mall. It popped out of the supports and crashed to the floor breaking in a million pieces. Not only did we need to create the new logo for the Greenwood store but we had to figure out how to replace the original.
Please No Signs For Your Basement
I wanted to do neon art and our personal customers always wanted a sign for their basement. I don’t remember who Ron and Tracey were, but their basement is adorned with their 1957 Cadillac.
There was one residential art piece designed for two guys in an apartment downtown. It was a beautiful angel. I have no recollection of how we got this mounted into the wall but obviously we had to work on a homemade scaffold.
Lots of Neon Stories
There were many boring pieces made for some interesting businesses. We highlighted “Shoes Shoes Shoes” for Jacobson’s at Keystone Crossing. Somehow and I don’t quite remember how, I took on a large job for a strip club on Pendleton Pike, probably Brad’s Gold Club or the Brass Flamingo, I don’t completely remember, but I do remember the night we had to make a service call in the thick of things. I won’t do that again!
There is only one commercial piece still in operation that I know of. I did the sign for my dad’s barber shop. Tom’s Barber Shop on South Meridian Street near Stop Eleven.
I remember a piece from Claypool Court that we added a giant finger to so it would point to the downstairs area. I came across the photo badly damaged and I wondered who those girls were and realized it was my best friend Helene and the other one was me. My but we were thin and beautiful back then. Now we are just beautiful!
We did several signs in Broad Ripple like Club 816 and Broad Ripple Steak House. I even did a giant neon orange street number for my bosses at the time who lived in a noteworthy home on the canal in Broad Ripple, the glamorous and flamboyant Donna and Richard Deer of BDI Pharmaceuticals. They needed to be found for pizza delivery!
The builder who built our noteworthy home fell off the roof and he was furious with me because I called for an ambulance. I named him John “major reaction” Harmon and did a piece that he hung in our home until it was completely built. That piece is still in operation thirty years later. Amazing how it found its way to Florida without being broken.
I created a neon Easter basket. Free form art in the middle of colored eggs and plastic grass.
MTV was in vogue in the 1980s so I did one with a timer to blink the TV part on and off with the M fully lit. Our home was a little on the unusual side. Looks like the season was Christmas based on the Christmas tree.
There were a few art objects like the oil flow and cactus of every kind.
The art I truly wanted to create like the photos below was not meant to be. My husband left in 1995 and just like the Rio Grande Zephyr, it was the end of my era. Today I live within walking distance to that house and life. I have decorated a small bathroom with fond reminders of the neon art I never got to create. No regrets. I am a new creation rising from the ashes of adversity nearly twenty-five years ago.
Neon Art – Created by Lilly Lakich
How Neon is Made
I found two priceless documents. Apparently I prepared a speech to give to a group who came to learn. The paperwork said NDS. I have no idea who they were. I also prepared a three-page handout printed on tractor fed paper. I am a relic. It is like I am on an archaeological dig unearthing dinosaurs.
The design is prepared full scale. It is traced onto an asbestos type material in reverse image. (I have no idea how that was done so don’t ask!)
The glass tube is heated until it becomes liquid. The tube bender must blow air into the tube to keep it from collapsing. As I recall there was a cork in one end of the tube and the air intake on the other end. Blow too hard and you blow a hole in the tube and start over. Blow too little and the tube collapses and you start over. With the tube liquid, you bend it and match it to the pattern.
There were three types of fires or torches used. A cross fire was for tight bends. A ribbon burner was for large curves and a hand torch was used for slicing tubes together. It all scared me to death.
My instructor was William B Reyher and I drove to Terre Haute for many hours of lessons. I recall that no one was willing to help me or teach me in Indianapolis. Bill was a kind soul willing to help to keep the craft alive.
Electrodes were joined onto each end of the tube. A high voltage of electricity is applied to the piece to burn out all the impurities in the tube. This step is called “bombarding.” A vacuum is created in the tube as the piece burns in.
Next the tube is filled with gas. Only two of the five rare gases are used in neon production. Neon gas produces an orange glow in a clear tube. Argon gas produces a lavender color in a clear tube. There are powder coated colored glass tubes that produced a variety of colors depending on the gas that was used. A drop of mercury was added which is what brings out the brilliance of light. Tube sizes ranged from 5 mm – 25 mm. The smaller the tube, the more brilliant the light and the more voltage per square foot it takes to run it.
I remember the day the transformer arrived on a semi-truck as we were building our neon plant. It was as large as the largest transformer you see on our electrical poles. We were told to report this to the power company because a major surge of this voltage would have the police out in no time as this might be indicative of a meth lab!
I have been highly curious my entire life. My first business was a retail store Primavera, selling handbags and jewelry at the Hyatt Regency downtown Indianapolis. Perhaps the next venture was Zephyr Neon Manufacturing Co Ltd. After my car accident and head injury in 2006, I needed to create some sort of job to sustain me in my old age. This is when the Helicopter Field Trip for Children – Hover Over Photo was invented. This venture completely wiped out my retirement savings and I had to figure out another way to make a living. My entrepreneurial ventures were never financially successful, but they were exhilarating in their creation and they defined me. I have not planned well for my financial future but I have had the most amazing life and it was quite a ride.
Polly Riddell writing as G. Polly Jordan is a freelance journalist connecting people and the stories they tell and writing a few of my own to document a life well lived with many, many lessons learned.
Primavera Handbags and Jewelry
Zephyr Neon Manufacturing Co. Ltd.
Energy In Balance – Holistic Journey to Health
Respect Your Elders – Professional Guardian and Elder Care
Hover Over Photo – Helicopter Field Trip for Children
The Story Teller