Vintage neon signs have become a rare and treasured thing in the Valley. In fact, local preservationists estimate there are only around three dozen old-school illuminated displays still in operation around metro Phoenix. And that number gets smaller every year, says local historian Marshall Shore.
“There are so few [vintage] neon signs left now that it's become a scarce commodity,” he says.
It's a far cry from 70 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.”
Neon’s made a bit of a comeback in recent years. Since 2014, a number of Valley businesses have re-embraced the art form and use neon signage, including a slew of spots in Gilbert's Historic Heritage District. Over at Uptown Plaza at Camelback Road and Central Avenue, most of the restaurants and shops feature neon.
Local 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 that neon has a certain appeal over lighting like LED.
“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,” she says.
You can see for yourself by checking out the following list of the best and brightest neon signs, both new and old, currently in operation around the Valley.
The Nash110 East Roosevelt Street, 602-795-0464
The purple neon spelling out the name of this Roosevelt Row jazz joint adds an extra aura of cool to the place. It’s the brainchild of local architect Shawn Kaffer, who also designed The Nash and its logo. According to Joel Goldenthal of Jazz in Arizona, the nonprofit arts organization behind the venue, the sign fits the vibe of The Nash 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 Coffee4220 North Seventh Avenue, 602-266-2136
Caffeine junkies aren't the only thing buzzing at this popular Melrose District coffee joint housed within a remodeled midcentury service station on Seventh Avenue. Starting at dusk, Copper Star Coffee's triangular neon sign, which oozes as much retro cool as 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.
Valley Bar130 North Central Avenue, 602-368-3121
The neon sign perched above the alleyway entrance to downtown Phoenix’s Valley Bar is admittedly of a minimalist nature. Created by artist Sue Meyers of Bend-A-Light Studio, it simply spells out the name of the establishment in glowing red neon. Nothing more, nothing less. It accentuates the gritty feel of the Valley Bar’s front door and is elegant in its simplicity.
Groggy's Bar and Grill2207 West Main Street, Mesa, 480-969-7648
Groggy's in Mesa hits up passers-by with the hard sell via its circa-1980s sign, which sums up the neighborhood bar's mix of food, fun, spirits, and billiards while being adorned with a vintage-looking cocktail rendered in radiant neon. It's acted like a boozy Bat-Signal for barflies over past few decades for anyone in the mood to get as plastered as the cartoon frog located underneath.
StarFighters Arcade4840 East Jasmine Street, #102, Mesa 602-513-9532
Retro is the name of the game at this throwback geek destination. Inside, you’ll find a mix of classic arcade games and pinball machines, as well as a collection of vintage toys and ‘80s flicks being screened. The circular signage at StarFighters is just as nostalgic as the rest of the offerings, as it combines pinup art ringed by a neon rendering of the arcade’s name. Owners Michael Lovato and Steve Thomas commissioned Mesa artist Larry Graham to craft the piece along with neon versions of Pac-Man and the spaceship from Galaga decorating the walls of the place.
Desert Flame11145 East Apache Trail, Mesa, 480-984-1400
This Mesa topless bar’s towering sign features the silhouetted figure of a curvy female lying in repose, which not only tempts potential clientele but also upholds a longstanding tradition of neon being used at strip joints. “Signs like that go way back to the era where you would have a gentleman's club that would have a neon sign out front,” Shore says.
Duke Photography 2810 North Seventh Avenue, 602-265-2605
Despite the midcentury origins of his namesake midtown Phoenix photo studio, the late James Riley Duke didn't warm up to neon until well after the art form’s golden age had passed. In 1999, the professional photographer commissioned a new logo for the business — which has been snapping senior portraits, prom pics, and modeling headshots for decades — and also spruced up it exterior with a new sign. Its teal and yellow color palette, as well as its signature crown, reflect Duke's lifelong hobby of raising peacocks.
Shamrock Farms Dairy2228 North Black Canyon Highway, 602-272-6721
Valley natives and longtime residents are probably well-acquainted with this Interstate 17 landmark that towers over the Shamrock Farms Dairy along the freeway just north of McDowell Road. The ovoid sign ringed with twinkling bulbs and populated with neon lettering has been giving the time and temperature to passing motorists for several decades now, not to mention shilling the company's selection of wholesome dairy products.
Roadrunner Restaurant & Saloon47801 North Black Canyon Highway, New River, 623-465-9903
Most roadrunners have a tendency to quickly dart out of sight. The one bolted to the roof of this western steakhouse and saloon out in the hinterlands of New River will be easier to spot, probably because it's both enormous and trimmed in bright red neon. Heck, you might even spy its crimson glow while driving after dark along the northbound Interstate 17 nearby.
Wagon Wheel Building706-712 West Montecito Avenue
The owners of this historic Melrose District shopping plaza dropped a considerable chunk of change in 2005 to refurbish, restore, and rewire its sign, to the tune of around $3,500. It was worth every penny, as its one of the liveliest signs in the neighborhood because to its constantly spinning pinwheel of individually colored neon spokes that create a rainbow dervish of motion and light that shines out in the darkness.
Hambone Sports Bar903 East Main Street, Mesa, 480-833-9839
Don't let its “sports bar” moniker fool you, the Hambone in Mesa is a dive, pure and simple – and a long-running one at that. In fact, booze pigs have been stopping by to take a drink or shoot some stick for generations as it's been a mainstay of Main Street for more than 50 years. And the Hambone's jaunty and colorful neon-lit sign, featuring a dapper porker raising a toast, has been there since the first round was served.
Liquor Wheel3445 East McDowell Road, 602-273-7200
The rise of car culture in the Valley during the midcentury era brought with it an increase in businesses geared towards motorists, including drive-thru establishments like this long-running McDowell Road business. Liquor Wheel’s been around since the ‘50s, and has stayed largely unchanged (save for the fact its proprietors now offer auto title loans and buy gold), even sporting the same red and blue neon that trims the roof of its chalet-style structure and forms the glowing letters of its classic sign.
Melrose Pharmacy706 West Montecito Avenue, 602-277-4714
Befitting of its home in the circa-1930s Wagon Wheel Building, the sign at Melrose Pharmacy utilizes Art Deco lettering and is made from repurposed materials. It also offers a vintage vibe. The building’s former owner Kurt Stickler researched plaza and lollipop-style signage from the era when creating it along with local neon artist Sue Meyers. “It's one of my favorites, and not because I helped make it,” she says. “[Kurt] did everything old school from the fabrication of the letters to the color of the neon. It's great.”
Roadrunner Motel2066 West Main Street, Mesa, 480-834-8040
It's been a long, hard road for this old bird. During its heyday more than 50 years ago, the Roadrunner was one of a host of squeaky clean local motor hotels steeped in the sort of Southwestern kitsch that tourists ate up with a spoon. These days, its swimming pool is now a cement slab surrounded by scattered weeds and there's a comfortably shabby vibe to the whole place. Its charming sign, however, still looks great after all these years (even if the plastic roadrunner placard is a little faded), particularly under the cover of darkness when it’s all lit up.
Glenfair Lanes6110 North 59th Avenue, Glendale, 623-937-9225
The circular neon displays adorning the front entrance of Glenfair Lanes in Glendale pretty much sum up what the place is all about: booze and bowling. One features a tipsy cocktail glass while the other consists of a bowling ball knocking over a pin. Both feature pink and blue hues and provide a distinctly retro vibe.
Harkins Valley Art509 South Mill Avenue, Tempe, 480-446-7272
Having opened way back in 1940, the Valley Art on Mill Avenue has achieved the rarefied status of being Arizona's oldest cinema still in operation today. It's not the theater's only claim to fame, as it also boasts Tempe's largest neon sign. Sitting atop a similarly enormous marquee, its neon-lined letters were one of the historic elements at the movie house that were gussied up during a $1 million restoration in 2011.
Hobe Meats6044 North 16th Street, 602-604-2333
After local butcher Bret Pont bought Hobe Meats from its founders in 2009, he kept things pretty much the same at the long-running Phoenix shop. That includes its neon sign, which Pont says dates back to the establishment's opening in 1962 and still features its original glass tubing. A pair of enormous plaster statues of steers, which Pont purchased from the now-defunct Pinnacle Peak Patio in Scottsdale, alongside the sign helps it stand out even more.
Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles1220 South Central Avenue, 602-340-1304
The chicken is definitely badass at Lo-Lo's location on Central Avenue — and we aren't necessarily referring to the deliciously deep-fried yardbird being served inside. There's also the restaurant’s icon of a muscled-up rooster rendered in red and yellow neon that’s part of its signage outside.
Lenny’s Burger2545 West Glendale Avenue, 602-347-1188
Neon and fast food restaurants have always gone together like burgers and fries. Both experienced a significant boom period in the ‘50s and were intertwined for decades. In fact, the first-ever McDonald's franchise was built near the intersection of Central Avenue and Indian School Road in 1953 and was wrapped in glowing neon, including its signature golden arches. So when the owners of the homegrown Lenny's chain remodeled their Glendale Avenue location several years ago, it seemed fitting they spruced up its amusing sign and exterior with an array of glowing, gas-powered lighting.
New Hong Kong Restaurant2328 East Indian School Road, 602-954-9118
The sign outside this Arcadia-area Chinese restaurant is quaintly vintage. Its curious shape tends to attract the eye, as does the fact that certain neon letters always seem to be on the fritz, humorously resulting in the name of the place being rendered as “Ho Ko.” Part of us hopes the owners never fix it, allowing us a personal chuckle every time we drive past.
Melrose Vintage700 West Campbell Avenue, 602-809-2055
Wendy and Diane Christensen, the mother-daughter duo behind this Melrose District boutique specializing in shabby chic vintage and antique items, had the neon on the store’s boutique's elegant-looking sign, which is historic in its own right, restored to working order in 2015.
Chandler Liquors554 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 480-963-5100
Drivers cruising past Chandler Liquors might find it a little difficult to keep their eyes on the road, considering this attention-grabbing distraction up on the store's rooftop that dates back to the early '60s. Boasting a cascading array of incandescent lights that swoop up, over, and around into a neon explosion, it's definitely one of the more unique-looking signs in the Valley.
Liberty Market230 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert, 480-892-1900
Downtown Gilbert's Heritage District has become a hot spot for neon signage over the last few years. Long before restaurants like Oregano’s or Zinburger embraced the art form, the landmark Liberty Market was bathed with pink and green light from the gas-filled glass tubes adorning its building and picturesque marquee. Designed in 1958 by the late Mae Ong, who owned the business with her husband, the neon has survived the decades and the property's transformation into an eatery by restaurateur Joe Johnston in the late 2000s. Its a gorgeous reminder of the Gilbert of yesteryear.
Arby's3826 East Thomas Road, 602-957-0135
You don't have to be a fan of Arby's (or even fast food in general) to appreciate the throwback flair of the enormous sign outside of its location on Thomas Road near 38th Street. Like the restaurant itself, the glowing hat-shaped monolith has been around for going on five decades and is the only one of its kind in Arizona. It's undergone a few cosmetic tweaks over the years, including adding the phrase “Drive-Thru” along the brim of the hat, but has remained largely unchanged since its debut in the late 1960s.
Cheese 'n Stuff5042 North Central Avenue, 602-266-3636
This historic Central Avenue delicatessen, which first opened in 1949, is topped by an equally vintage globe-shaped sign. Its as old as the spot itself and was created by the late Leonard Christensen, a renowned local sign maker. In 2014, his son, Dane Christensen, did Cheese 'n Stuff’s owner Stan Zawatski and refurbished the neon elements of the sign. And he reportedly did it for free. We’re sure his pops would’ve been proud.
Mellow Mushroom740 South Mill Avenue, Tempe, 480-967-6355
The sign at Mellow Mushroom’s location along Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe is both colorful and playful. Depending on who you ask, it also may or may not be a sly wink to the pizzeria's stoner-friendly shtick, as the cartoon-like mushroom mascot boasts some droopy eyes. In other words, the neon isn’t the only thing that might be buzzing here.
SideBar1514 North Seventh Avenue, 602-254-1646
When SideBar owner Josh Parry wanted to install a vintage-inspired neon sign back in 2009 to help accentuate the retro swank of his CenPho drinkery and lounge, he certainly did his homework. “I really wanted something with that old-school touch to go with our mid-century modern feel, so I went back and looked up a lot of old, vintage signs from that era with that classic cocktail feel to them,” he says. The result is the striking, vertically oriented creation situated above SideBar's front door boasting a tipped martini glass that perfectly embodies all the tippling that occurs inside.
Trava-Leers Motel836 West Main Street, Mesa, 480-962-8936
Adorned with cursive-like neon and topped by a trio of Space Age-style cones, the signage for this historic mid-century motel along Main Street in Mesa features style and charm to spare. “It's adorable,” says local midcentury guru Alison King. “There's something about that white script that's so charming and very sweet. It makes it look very friendly and inviting to visitors. It's just this invitation to come by and check it out.”
Joe’s Real BBQ301 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert, 480-503-3805
Restaurateur Joe Johnston's popular barbecue spot in Gilbert is not only big on sumptuous and smoked meats, it's also big on history. Inspired by Texas 'cue joints from the 1940s, its housed in a former Depression-era market, sports an interior mural celebrating the town's agrarian heritage, and is laden with antiques and ephemera. Another nod to the past can be seen in the lively and spirited neon sign hanging from the second floor that looks like it fell out of a time warp. A waft of smoke playfully forms part of the lettering while an animated golden arrow invites hungry diners inside to sit for a spell and dig into a plate of pulled pork or a mess of ribs.
Circle RB Lodge6547 East Main Street, Mesa, 480-985-9923
Many a midcentury motor lodge along Main Street in Mesa or the Apache Trail plays off Arizona's Wild West past, including this ranch-style roadside stop from the Eisenhower era that features Spanish casitas and an illuminated buckaroo that helped bring in weary travelers. According to local historian Douglas Towne in a piece he wrote for the Society for Commercial Archaeology, “wranglers were common inanimate barkers used to entice tourists. One of the most talented is the neon cowboy at the Circle RB in Mesa whose giant lasso forms the sign's boundaries.”
Barrio Queen388 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert, 480-634-5025
Both the Scottsdale and Gilbert versions of high-style Mexican restaurant Barrio Queen feature a Day of the Dead-inspired logo of a regal-looking katrina. The latter spot, however, utilizes it in far more flashy fashion as it's been transformed into a magnificent animated neon sign created by Valley design firm Trademark Visuals and reigns over the town's Heritage District, at least in terms of its pizzazz.
Ziggie’s Music3309 North Third Street, 602-266-9622
The family behind this 93-year-old music store and studio in midtown Phoenix earned cheers from local historic preservationists and neon lovers alike in 2013 after they had the establishment's aging and weather-beaten sign expertly restored. And they did it with the donations of around two-dozen contributors from both the U.S. and U.K. (including rock 'n' roll legend Al Casey, who once gave guitar lessons at Ziggie's), each chipping in whatever they could to cover the costs of returning the sign to its glowing glory.
Hotel San Carlos202 North Central Avenue, 602-253-4121
Over its 92-year lifespan, this famed downtown Phoenix hotel has undergone myriad modifications and upgrades to keep up with the times, like the extensive renovation to its exterior in the mid-1950s. Downtown had gone gaga for neon around then, and the Hotel San Carlos followed suit by transforming the blade sign ran that crawled up the side of the six-story building into an electrified marquee spelling out the hotel's name in illuminated block lettering. Its canopy awning was also replaced with a metal overhang and another neon sign. Both exist to this day and have become trademarks of the hotel.
Hiway Host Motel1260 West Main Street, Mesa, 480-964-3570
The staff at the Hiway Host in Mesa aren't exactly certain of when the Main Street motor lodge opened its doors to weary travelers. Its distinctive and quaint sign, however, is clearly steeped in mid-century kitsch of the 1950s, from its playful lettering to the starburst on top. It's worth checking out when cruising along Main Street, even if all the neon isn't working at that particular moment.
New Windsor Hotel546 West Adams Street, 602-254-8694
There's a lot to love about the New Windsor. For starters, this grand old dame is more than 125 years old and is one of only a handful of Victorian-era buildings left in Phoenix, which makes it both historically and architecturally significant. Tucked away in one of the sleepier portions of downtown Phoenix, it stands out from a rash of boring and blighted buildings, largely due to its pink and teal paint job and all the jazzy neon just above the front door. The blade-style sign was installed during a 1935 renovation that also added a third floor to the property, which now serves as low-cost housing for senior citizens.
We're not alone in our fondness for the place, as Towne and other local preservationists are also big fans. “The sign that does it for me is the New Windsor Hotel. It’s not just the huge, two-colored vertical sign on the front facade, but the additional neon lighting above the hotel’s entrance, including the 'air-cooled' message in cerulean blue,” he states. “It’s the most evocative place in Phoenix to be transported back in time to the 1930s.”
Walgreens Pharmacy8911 North Seventh Street, 602-944-9635
This particular Walgreens stands out from any of the drugstore chain’s other Valley locations because of its stylishly vintage exterior. A pair of signs with the drug emporium chain's name rendered in crimson-colored neon adorn the building, with one perched atop a lattice-like facade of Superlite-style faceted brickwork and a smaller version running along the side of its canopy.
King digs the signage and enjoys how it “blazes red at night” and it's still in good condition, among other reasons. “Seeing the same word interpreted two different ways in two different scales [is great],” she says. “The lovely brick backdrop is also really unique and is also part of the experience.”
Sunland Motel2602 East Main Street, Mesa, 480-833-1713
Despite our oftentimes contentious relationship with the sun, the blazing celestial object and the overabundance of light and heat it casts our way ultimately define the Valley. And it's brought countless millions to these parts over the decades, starting around the time that the original owners of the Sunland first flipped on their signature neon sign in the '50s.
“Visitors to Arizona often made the journey because of the mild climate making the sun a powerful image used to symbolize the state,” Towne says. Hence this motel's theme, which juxtaposes nicely with nearby Starlite Motel, home of the famed Diving Lady. “The fiery orange-red neon lighting [of] the Sunland Motel sign in Mesa was in stark contrast to its legendary neighbor, which features an oasis theme,” Towne says.
Jerry's Drive-In Liquors1217 South Rural Road, Tempe, 480-966-8655
As you're probably aware, college kids have a thing for drinking. Hence all the scores of liquor stores around Arizona State University's Tempe campus that Sun Devils have flocked to for ages. And from the 1950s onward, students of legal drinking age has been pointed in the direction of Jerry's thanks to the large arrow equipped with twinkling lights on its neon sign. Local historian Marshall Shore is a fan. “That's an amazing sign,” Shore says. “The fact it's very original and that it dates back to that era of, 'Hey, here's a big arrow that shows you that Jerry's Liquor is right this way.'”
Starlite Motel (a.k.a. the “Diving Lady”)2710 East Main Street, Mesa, 480-964-2201
Fans of neon culture and local historic preservationist crowd applauded in 2013 when this towering animated neon sign, which depicts a bathing beauty taking a high-dive plunge into a pool, located at the Starlite Motel in Mesa was restored after being toppled by a thunderstorm three years earlier. Widely considered to be the most famous neon sign in the Valley, dubbed the “Diving Lady,” debuted in 1960 and has become both a local landmark and cultural touchstone for longtime residents, as well as a beautiful remnant of a bygone era.
Courtesy Chevrolet1233 East Camelback Road, 480-359-1354
The Camelback Corridor wouldn't look the same without the ever-present sparkle, glitter, and glow provided by the iconic and historic sign at Courtesy Chevrolet being a part of the street's skyline. Built in 1957 when the auto dealership moved to its present location, it has a significant mid-century modern flair with its arrow-shaped design, an emphasis on twinkling lights, and rounded edges, making it very much a product of its era. A flashy tableau of hundreds of shimmering and winking lights are contained within the letters, each of which is outlined in cerulean neon.
According to the staff at the dealership, the sign has undergone some changes in recent years, such as replacing its mechanical flashers and incandescent bulbs with LEDs, in order to make it more energy conscious. The dealership staff also conducts routine inspections and maintenance on the sign, both to keep things in good operating properly and to ensure the towering sign is structurally sound. Good thing, too, since monsoon thunderstorms have dealt a few tragic blows to many historic signs around the Valley over the years.
Editor's note: This article was previously published in December 2015 and has been updated.
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