, Salem, MA

March 1, 2014

Sign of the times

Strong showing of neon signs remains on the North Shore

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — Since the early 1950s, the green neon glow of the cursive letters and old school white flashing light bulbs of Sunnyside Bowladrome’s sign have ushered in bowlers.

The sign for the Danvers bowling alley was built back in the day for $750 and was restored for $21,000 in the 1990s. Recently, the glass bulbs were replaced and the backdrop repainted.

It is a sign from a bygone era, but owner Nick Cameles said he remains committed to keeping it despite increased maintenance and repair costs. When the recent work was taking place, many customers questioned if the bowling alley was closing or if the sign would be removed, he said.

“People drive by and it has been a fixture for over 60 years,” he said. “We’ll keep it going as long as we can.”

These types of neon marquees and signs — popular in 1950s and ’60s — are considered to be on the decline and slowly being replaced with more energy-efficient and less expensive LED lighting or back-lit box signs. Many cities and towns have also banned new exposed neon signs, according to Jess Hanson, owner of Star Sign in Beverly.

“You can’t put them up anymore,” Cameles said. “So once the sign is gone you can’t replace it. We are considered grandfathered in.”

Two weeks ago, the old neon sign at the Whittier Motel in Ipswich was taken down and will be replaced with a replica LED sign in similar size and shape. The sign was becoming too costly to maintain, owner Roger LeBlanc said.

“The neon wasn’t practical,” LeBlanc said. “The tubes and transformers were probably from the 1960s and when I was using the sign there were letters and parts that would always be out.”

Another neon sign casualty within the last year was the Warwick Theatre marquee in Marblehead. It was slated to be restored and reattached to a new development after the original theater was torn down in 2011. The developers ended up installing a replica.

The news isn’t all bad for the North Shore. There’s still an impressive showing at the Cabot Street Cinema in Beverly, Steve’s Quality Market in Salem and Kappy’s in Danvers — and that’s only a few. There’s also the green and gold Pickled Onion Bar & Grille with light encircling and the well-known moving neon sign with a man eating noodles at the China Jade restaurant that can be seen from Route 128 in Beverly.

Hanson said he works with a number of business owners on the North Shore looking to preserve their neon signs, including Sunnyside Bowladrome.

“We used to make a million of them,” he said. “Every time one is taken down because they are old and falling apart a new one can’t be put up because of permitting. The only option is to refurbish, which can be costly.”

Hanson admitted neon can be a “nightmare” to maintain as compared to LED, but the natural glow and flare of neon can’t be replicated, he said. The letters of neon signs are made with glass tubing with neon and other gases flowing through them that illuminate with electricity, he said.

“You can make it look like neon, but when you put them side-by-side the neon is much brighter and more vibrant,” he said. “It just has a certain look that can’t be replicated by LED.”

Looking outside of the Star Sign offices on Rantoul Street, Hanson said he can see two neon signs: the Pickled Onion Bar & Grille sign and a “Liquors” sign at ChrisPy’s Liquors. The Pickled Onion sign was retrofitted in 2002 by Star Sign from the old Freddie’s Restaurant neon sign — a local landmark which greeted visitors to downtown Beverly for more than half a century.

The sign’s future at the time was unknown when the Zoning Board of Appeals denied the owners based on the building inspector’s opinion that the sign was out of compliance, but the board changed its mind based on a court case. The sign’s original red, white and blue color scheme was replaced by green and gold.

“You certainly can’t miss it,” Hanson said. “You drive down the street and it’s in your face in a classy old-fashioned sign kind of way.”

The most iconic neon sign on the North Shore is arguably the teal glow of the Cabot Street Cinema. The sign was installed in 1965 when the original marquee was removed for the Ware Theatre when it was bought and the name changed, according the Beverly Historical Society.

“It has become an iconic landmark downtown,” said David Bull, president of White Horse Productions, which bought the theater in 1976. When the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, pictures were taken of the trophy with the sign in the background.

“The photographer asked ‘What’s the landmark in Beverly?’ and they picked the Cabot Cinema marquee,” Bull said.

With the pending sale of the building it is unknown what the future brings for the sign, he said, but the group continues to maintain it for the time being. “We had a handyman in the other week to do some small repairs,” he said, noting the sign has to be “constantly” repaired.

Another sign with its future in question is Bertini’s restaurant on Canal Street in Salem. Owner John Bertini said he has been looking to move the sign in order to add an addition to the front of the building, but city won’t allow it, he said.

“The city doesn’t want neon anymore,” Bertini said. The sign was built in the early 1950s.

“It is the only sign you can really read driving down Canal Street at night,” he said. “It sticks out.”

Bertini said he might be able to appeal the decision if he decided to move forward with the renovations. “I have a number of customers that say ‘don’t get rid of the sign,’” he said.

Peter Ingemi, owner of Steve’s Quality Market on Margin Street in Salem, said he’s looking to keep the store’s signature blue and red neon sign for many years to come. The glow of the sign can be distinguished from various points downtown. Like the Whittier Motel sign, certain letters or whole words will go dark at any given moment, Ingemi said.

He said water or moisture will often trip the electric ballasts — devices that store power and then release it as needed — or they will simply burn out after a number of years. The sign has had to be repaired many times since it was installed in 1962, he said.

“It is expensive to maintain,” he said, “but I don’t want to give up on it. I like those lights.”