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Neon man's crusade


LEN DAVIDSON has a bright idea. You could call it "electric" - or even, in '80s-speak, "tubular."

Yes, Davidson is a neon man, a collector and restorer of classic neon signs and a neon artist himself. He wrote the book on vintage neon, 1999's "Vintage Neon" (Schiffer Press), and is always ready to sing the praises of Philly's great neon signs from the mid-20th century, what he calls "imaginative cartoon drawings in light. " He'll do so in a talk Thursday on neon's history.
One thing you learn from talking to Davidson: There's neon and there's neon. A glowing "PSFS" is a key part of our skyline, but Davidson is most interested in the funkier signs depicting people and things. The Levis hot dog, the Howard Johnson's lamplighter or the Sherwin-Williams paint can covering the Earth - all are a kind of signage that delights the eye with zippy color and the mind with whimsy.
You may have seen some of Davidson's own latter-day creations in this vein - the Zipperhead logo on South Street and the Down Home Diner, the animated trolley car atop Mt. Airy's Trolley Car Diner, to name a few.
Davidson sees renewed interest among art historians in the medium and wants to get many of the pieces he's collected back out into the public eye. He's proposing a "neon corridor" alongside the newly expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center - a few blocks' worth of displays, mostly in storefront windows, of classic neon signs from Philadelphia's rich history.
Davidson believes this would add a jazzy, colorful, historically significant tourist destination to Philly's current menu. Some local movers and shakers are on board with the idea.
Reading Terminal Market head Paul Steinke is a fan of the plan, as is John Claypool of the Center for Architecture. (Its 1218 Arch St. headquarters now houses 13 of Davidson's classic neon pieces. ) And legendary city planner Robert Venturi gives a thumbs-up, tying in the neon corridor with his own proposal for a vintage sign display on Arch Street.
I'm also a fan, but I should mention I've known Davidson since the early days of the Dumpster Divers, a local artists group he co-founded in 1992. The Divers' ethic, taking a fresh look at what's being discarded by society and questioning how it might be repurposed creatively, is completely in sync with Davidson's neon evangelism. Hearing him talk about neon as art, the appeal is clear.
"The thing about the vernacular stuff," he said, "is that it was not created by 'artists' but by craftsmen and shopkeepers, and their mentality is a common-man, folk-art mentality. They think of more outrageous things than a tasteful architect or designer will think of. It was a blue-collar, creative, comic mentality. "
Plus, the concept of signs back then was just more fun. "The trademarks of that time are all figural: Buster Brown, Mobil's flying horse, Cracker Jack's sailor kid, Indian heads, all sorts of people and objects. " Now, he points out, corporate brands consist of "a simple dash, or a circle, as minimal as can be. "
Back when that regular-joe, cartoony aesthetic was still fueling signmaking, Philadelphia was a major neon city. "If you look at the layout of this rowhouse city," Davidson explained, "you have these avenues running through North Philly and South Philly, and this is before supermarkets, before big-box stores, and shopping was done on the avenue. So you had hundreds of merchants with butcher, baker and candlestick-maker-type shops, people who needed advertising, and neon was this new, bright, electric, iconic kind of advertising.
"The competition to stand out was fantastic," and neon workers would try to top each other with ingenious eye-catching creations.
And they were built to last. "They had an ethic of permanence," Davidson said. "Sure, porcelain enamel [a coating that extends the life of a neon sign by decades] is more expensive, but we need something for 100 years! That was how you thought then. "
An example is the Pat's King of Steaks sign that Davidson rescued from demolition in 1995. Now on display at Jack's Firehouse, it had been at 33rd and Ridge since 1952, remaining for decades after that location closed. This piece, Davidson said, "could stand up against neon signs anywhere in the country. People used to see the Pat's Steaks sign from airplanes, it was so bright. "
And big.
The crown atop the sign is 12-by-9-feet, and even though it now lacks neon tubes (Davidson is still trying to find photos of the exact layout of the original neon), it still dazzles, an outsize icon of upbeat vitality.
Davidson has dozens of stories of rescuing cast-off signs, but that may be a thing of the past.
"All the things that I was getting cheap or for free back in the '70s," he noted, "they're now worth thousands of dollars. Then, there were very few of us that saw these as folk art - but now, that consciousness is there.
"Not only do most U.S. cities have someone like me collecting the stuff and arguing for it, you've even got collectors in Japan wanting to buy up Manny, Moe and Jack [the Pep Boys, in their neon incarnation], and you've got neon museums and displays showing up all over. "
If Davidson's corridor, which would include 12th Street from Market up to Race plus the Arch Street side of the Convention Center, comes to pass, Philly will join cities like Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; Cincinnati; and Vancouver, to name a few that have already begun showcasing classic neon.
Vancouver has "the best neon history of any city in North America," Davidson said. Even though Las Vegas is synonymous with neon for many, it's Vancouver that really leads the pack with creative "mom-and-pop" creations.
It's these funky local and regional pieces Davidson wants to see celebrated here, and even in listing them he can get caught up in how much fun they are.
"The iconic Philly signs are the ones I would most like to see [in the neon corridor]: Manny, Moe and Jack, the Pat's Steaks, Reading Terminal Market [Davidson restored the '50s sign that's at 12th and Filbert], SunRay drugs, an animated camera from Swartz camera - where the aperture opens and closes! A spectacular sign! "
With growing recognition of the artistic and civic value of classic neon, it's a very good sign indeed.
Len Davidson will speak on "The History of Neon in Philadelphia" at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture, 1218 Arch St. Tickets are $10, $5 for AIA members. Info at 215-569-3188.