40 Best Neon Signs in Metro Phoenix
The historic Sunland Motel in Mesa.
Photos by Benjamin Leatherman
Vintage neon signs have become a rare and treasured thing in the Valley. In fact, local preservationists estimate there are only there are only around three dozen of these illuminated displays that are still located around metro Phoenix. And that number has gotten smaller every year, says local historian Marshall Shore.
“There are so few neon signs left now that it's become a scarce commodity,” he says.
It's why Shore and other fans of neon are not only trying to save the scant amount of vintage displays that remain around town, as well as cherish the ones still in operation and welcome the handful of local businesses creating new neon signs.
The scarcity of vintage neon signs is a far cry from of 60 years ago, Shore says, when neon signs were a staple of businesses along major thoroughfares and highways around the Valley (as well as in other cities nationwide) during the art form's boom in the 1950s, which coincided with the growth of car culture.
“Neon really encapsulates a certain era when cars were heavily on the rise, people were traveling faster than ever before, further than they've traveled ever before, and didn't know what was around them,” he says. “So you had to have a sign that was bigger, bolder, brighter than your neighbors to attract the attention.”
That was particularly true of the main drags in and out of the Valley in that timeframe, including Van Buren, Grand Avenue, and Main Street in Mesa.
“All of those roads were chockfull of motels with some pretty spectacular signs,” Shore says.
Neon wasn't limited to the motor courts along highways as countless bars, restaurants, and retail stores in Phoenix boasted glowing signage powered by electrified noble gases. “We were a hotbed for Americana,” Shore says. “That whole neon era really speaks to the real heyday and the birth of Phoenix as we know it during that whole post-war boom.”
However, the popularity and prevalence of neon declined sharply over the decades. Mid-century culture guru Alison King, who edits website Modern Phoenix, says a backlash against neon began developing in the '60 and '70s when some considered signs to be cheesy or gaudy.
Grand Avenue's iconic Mr. Lucky's sign.
“The city used to be very full of neon signs,” she says. “In its time it was considered visual pollution because it got out of control and the city was just overwhelmed with neon [and] it was considered to be kind of tacky.”
The growth of the interstate freeway system also contributed to the foundering of neon culture, especially as businesses began to close along Phoenix's main drags for travelers. “Van Buren and Grand Avenue used to be a corridor for neon and everything started to be stripped away and stripped away and stripped away even more.”
A mass exodus of neon occurred in the Valley over the ensuing decades, with most signs winding up in the scrap heap and a scant few becoming part of private collections. Shore believes more effort should be made to save Phoenix's neon history and cites Las Vegas' famed Neon Museum as an example of a city preserving such culture.
"It's really quite a transitional time for neon trying to figure out how do we preserve our own history," Shore says. "If you look at Vegas, they've done a great job of preserving their history in terms of neon. We aren't quite as lucky to have a boneyard like that. But it's amazing how many times we can find signs that are sitting in someone's backyard or someone has in storage. So there's little flashes and glimmers because people still really appreciate the art of it.
If Phoenix ever did get its own neon boneyard, perhaps many signs that are no longer in operation or have fallen into disrepair, such as the infamous Jester-like Mr. Lucky's display along Grand Avenue, could find a better home instead of acting as silent reminders of another time and place.
Sadly, the Valley continues to lose more neon signs, both functional and otherwise, each year due to business closures, redevelopment, or the elements. Last summer, for instance, a monsoon storm toppled the historic sign at Watson's Flowers on the Tempe/Mesa border. Shop owner Jacob Johnson has been trying to crowdfund the $65,000 needed for a restoration but has only raised a fraction of that amount.
"The Watson's sign is remarkable and beautiful and is an example of a sign that's vulnerable to the weather," King says. "It's going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars to get it restored but they haven't been able to crowdsource the funding they needed."
Gone but not forgotten.
One of the more recent losses of a cherished neon-lit landmark came earlier this year, the legendary sign for the original Bill Johnson's Big Apple on Van Buren was sold at auction to a Maricopa bar owner after the restaurant shuttered in May. They reportedly removed the sign earlier this month from the property, which is now owned by Gateway Community College.
Neon is still used by a certain amount of local businesses for signage and other commercial usage, but has been overtaken to a degree by more energy efficient and inexpensively priced LED technology. Local neon artist Sue Meyers of Bend-A-Light Studio, who has created signs for such downtown spots as Valley Bar and the Hotel San Carlos, says she's had a downturn in business over the last several years because of the growing popularity of LED-powered lighting.
“This has been going on for probably five years now and neon's just gotten clobbered by LEDs,” she says. “Its killed off a lot of neon for commercial signage. And in the meantime there's maybe a handful of us neon benders left in town or in the whole state.”
However, Meyers feels that neon is superior to LEDs for a variety of reasons.
“Neon is neon. You can't take something that's manufactured in China and put it next to something that's been around since the early 1900s. There's neon out there that's 50 or 60 years old that's still running,” she says. “When you put them next to each other, LED is going to be the brightest crayon in the box but neon is known for its glow, which I think is what really attracts people, that glow that it emits, which you're not going to get from anything else.”
Despite all these losses, there have also been a few bright spots glowing out of the darkness. In 2013, the Mesa Preservation Foundation restored the celebrated “Diving Lady” animated sign at the Starlite Motel after receiving more than $100,000 in donations from across the country. And the globe-shaped sign at Cheese 'n' Stuff Delicatessen at Central Avenue and Camelback Road recently returned to life thanks to the efforts of local sign maker Dane Christensen.
And then there's the upsurge of newer local business of a hip or stylish bent featuring neon signs. Many of the eateries that have opened in recent years in Gilbert's Historic Heritage District boast such signage, including spots like Joyride Tacos, Barrio Queen, and Petersen's Ice Cream Parlor.
According to the members of the Arizona Vintage Sign Coalition, a non-profit group aimed at cataloging, documenting, and preserving old-school signage around the state, the current redevelopment of the Uptown Plaza shopping center at Camelback and Central will include the creation and installation of a neon-laden sign inspired by the work of famed local designer Glenn Guyette (who consulted on the project).
King, who's an active member of the AVSC, says she's pleased to hear about the project.
“That's pretty exciting to have working neon signs at both Uptown Plaza and Cheese 'n' Stuff...all within walking distance of each other,” she says.
And once Uptown Plaza's display debuts sometime next year, we definitely plan to add it to the following list of the best and brightest neon signs, both new and old, that are currently in operation around the Valley.
The purple neon spelling out the name of this Roosevelt Row jazz joint, which adds an extra aura of cool to the place, is the brainchild of local architect Shawn Kaffer, who was primarily responsible for designing The Nash and its logo. And according to Joel Goldenthal of Jazz in Arizona, the nonprofit arts organization that runs the venue, it fit like a glove. “We collectively [decided] it would be a cool look for the sign,” he says. “Neon goes with the bebop era of jazz in the '50s since there was a lot of neon back then at jazz clubs.”
Copper Star Coffee
Caffeine junkies aren't the only thing that's buzzing at this popular Melrose District coffee joint housed within a remodeled mid-century service station along Seventh Avenue. Starting at dusk, Copper Star Coffee's triangular neon sign, which oozes as much retro cool as either its neighborhood or the establishment itself, glows with blue and yellow light and entices passers-by into making a pit stop for a high-octane beverage.
Groggy's in Mesa hits up passers-by with the hard sell via its circa 1980s sign, which proclaims the neighborhood bar's mix of food, fun, spirits, and billiards while capping off its case with a vintage-looking cocktail rendered in radiant neon. It's acted like a boozy Bat-Signal for barflies over the ensuing decades for anyone in the mood to get as groggy as the cartoon frog underneath.
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