Monday, February 1, 2016

The Ziegfeld

The Ziegfeld Theatre called it quits last week after nearly 47 years on West 54th Street.   Opened in 1969, the Ziegfeld stood in the shadow of a big bland glass and steel office tower and, moreover, of its namesake theater, which was destroyed to make way for that tower in the mid-1960s.  Though the latter-day Ziegfeld never really escaped the shadow of its illustrious predecessor, it was not without its charms - its kitschy, Pat Nixon-meets-Diamond Lil, gay-90s-bordello decor that survived intact as a kind of freeze-frame of the day and age from which it sprang.  

The Ziegfeld, outside and in. 

Its neon, too, is worthy of study as a period piece.  For the purposes of my book and blog, the Ziegfeld fell outside of my scope for the simple reason that its signs concealed their neon behind acrylic lenses.  In this, the Ziegfeld's signs were in step with their times:  by the mid-1960s, neon had fallen decidedly out of favor, and the popular trend away from exposed tube signs changed the aesthetic of the commercial landscape everywhere.  

Marquee names.

In New York Neon, I trace the chronology of this change and explore the fascinating psychology behind it.  From heights of vogue in the early 1930s, neon's appeal began to suffer even before WWII.  Big corporations, which had fueled the explosion of the neon business in the 1920s, began to dump neon by the late 1930s.  Plexiglas became commercially available in 1936; design requirements at the 1939 New York World's Fair discouraged the use of exposed tube neon signs.

The crowd pours in for the Ziegfeld's final screening last Thursday.

Particularly for small, independent businesses, neon storefront signs maintained a certain look through the 1950s, typified by what I call "pre-Helvetica" letterforms wrought in exposed neon tubes.  But this began to change by the early 1950s.  Chain businesses and corporate franchises led the way.  In 1953, Nedick's began to re-equip its New York locations with acrylic panel fascia signs.  Three years later, Woolworth's introduced a new program of plastic-clad signs to be installed at its five-and-dime stores nationwide.  By the mid-to-late 60s, exposed tube neon signs were down and out.  

Ziegfeld script.  

Enter the Ziegfeld.  Like so many banks and chain drug stores of the period, its signs conscientiously abandoned the neon-bedecked aesthetic that characterized movie theater marquees of the previous generation.  (As its NYT obit pointed out, the Ziegfeld was "the first major new movie house in Midtown Manhattan since Radio City Music Hall opened in 1932.")  But with their jaunty script letterforms, their old-world spelling of the word "theatre," the signs had one foot in the pre-Helvetica landscape of the early 60s, marking them as products of the changing times into which they were born. 

Show's over.

Much as I loved going there, it always struck me that the Ziegfeld must have been something of a bitter pill to swallow for those who had admired its predecessor and the other old movie palaces of New York that had already begun to disappear en masse back in the 60s.  None of those grand old pre-war theaters survives intact as a dedicated cinema in New York today, so the Ziegfeld was about the best thing we had.  And after nearly a half century, it had taken on its own authenticity, and in fact even outlived its predecessor (the old Ziegfeld lasted just 41 years).  Arguably the best place to see a movie in New York, it was certainly the most fun.  The Times reports that the former Ziegfeld will re-open as an event space catering to "galas and corporate functions" next year.  


The Paris
• The main auditorium at the Village East
• The occasional screening at the United Palace
• The Loew's Jersey


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

History's History

After 15 years, the bell has tolled for the massive History Channel sign up in the Bronx, various sources reported last week.  As of this past Saturday, the big neon letters had all come down, the old incandescent "motograph" was dim and half dismantled, and just the network's giant "H" logo remained in place. 

History bows out. (T. Rinaldi)

When this sign reared its head over this old Bronx warehouse  about 15 years ago, it struck me as somewhat ironic that such a historic form of advertising should be taken up by, of all things, the History Channel.  This was a neon "spectacular" in the classic style of those Times Square signs of yore, even if it lacked the animated bravado of its iconic ancestors.  Owing its existence to grandfather clauses in zoning codes that banned giant roof signs like this decades ago, its history stretches farther back than probably all but a very few of its admirers imagined.  

History in better days, January 27, 2015. (T. Rinaldi)

A few fun facts about the late History Channel sign: in addition to being very likely the largest neon sign in New York, it was one of the last works of the prolific Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp, renowned for having produced most of the 20th century Times Square spectaculars that remain etched in the retina of New York's collective memory.  The scrolling motograph that ran below the sign was a truly remarkable relic, a thing only slightly evolved from the first electric signs that appeared over Broadway in the 1890s.  

And in fact, the sign's origins likely go back almost that far.  In a past life, the big brick building beneath it was an ice house for the brewing empire of Jacob Ruppert, the beer baron who also built Yankee Stadium.  Ruppert seems to have first installed a large electric roof sign here sometime in the early 1900s. 

The old Ruppert sign shining out over the Willis Avenue bridge in the 1940s. (NYPL)

An old photograph preserved with the Artkraft Strauss papers at the New York Public Library shows what may be the first in a series of signs to occupy this perch over the past 100 years.   As traffic on the nearby Triborough bridge boomed after WWII, the Ruppert brewery cashed in on its location by hiring Artkraft Strauss to throw up a huge new spectacular advertising Knickerbocker Beer in 1952.  Trade publication Signs of the Times Magazine noted that the new installation replaced "the old Ruppert sign which had been a landmark in the Bronx for years."  Of the new sign, ST reported that "the letters are 40 feet high and extend 200 feet in length.  The spectacular employs 3-1/2 million candlepower and is said to be visible for 12 miles."

Ruppert's Knickerbocker spectacular was unveiled on August 20, 1952. (Signs of the Times Magazine, used with permission)

Ruppert eventually relinquished the space, leaving the sign to be reborn in 1962 with a new meganeon spectacular for Cities Service Oil (petroleonic predecessor to Citgo), which ST noted was visible to "an estimated 250,000 motorists a day."  Also erected by Artkraft Strauss, the sign flashed out the words "SEE AMERICA BY CAR" with candle power equal in intensity to a town of 10,000 people.  Cities Service in turn made way for a giant neon billboard for Kent Cigarettes, once again put up by Artkraft Strauss, which appeared in the mid-1970s. 

The Cities Service sign crowned the old Ruppert rooftop beginning in 1962. (Signs of the Times Magazine, used with permission)

The Kent sign, seen here in a brief cameo from Sidney Lumet's 1975 film "Dog Day Afternoon."  

But the supreme incarnation of the old Ruppert roof sign, at least for my money, came in the early 1980s.  Happily, the songline of my childhood just happened to intersect with the golden age of this dark angel of the night, when the big sign peddled the menthol wares of the Lorillard Tobacco Company, known to the world as Newport cigarettes.
The Newport sign in 1997. (T. Rinaldi)

Long drives between visits to relatives in Brooklyn and our family's home in upstate New York were a feature of my childhood.  Cooked up in the back seat in those prehistoric days before the Nintendo Gameboy, that drive felt like an eternity, especially the trip back north, which took place under cover of night.  Yet in the depths of those long dark schleps, I knew I could count on one thing to stir my little heart: that glorious, tricolor monument to tobacco, hawking smokes with consummate flair and unabashed showmanship.  Like the Fourth-of-July-fireworks it cartwheeled over the traffic:  

I / heart-heart-heart / NEW YORK!

I / heart-heart-heart / NEWPORT!

This was the supreme highlight of those eternal nightrides, year after year, a sight that will dance through the dim recesses of my memory for as long as I live.  But nothing lasts forever.  In the late 90s, some killjoy do-gooders decided there was no place in the skyline for animated billboards peddling highly addictive carcinogens to the youth of America.  The Newport sign went the way of its beer, cigarette and gasoline-pushing predecessors around the year 2000.  

A few years after the History Channel sign appeared here, Artkraft Strauss bailed out of the sign making business after more than 100 years.  Already, restrictive zoning ordinances had all but erased signs like these from the New York skyline, leaving the History Channel spectacular to stand out like a solitary neon dinosaur in an increasingly mundane nighttime cityscape. In the course of the sign's 15-year life, the big neon signs of Times Square and elsewhere have given way to giant LED billboards with all the character of supersized flatscreen TVs, completely devoid of the endearing mechanical acrobatics of their neon and incandescent ancestors. 

History in 2010.  (T. Rinaldi)

A long time ago, I had the idea that I would finish-off the New York Neon blog with a capstone tribute to the History Channel sign, an elegy plucked from the heartstrings in which this glow-in-the-dark landmark has been tangled up for as long as I can remember.  But now that the moment has come, I find myself not quite ready to put this blog to bed.  There's still enough left unwritten to keep this up a while longer.  Long enough, perhaps, to report on whatever the next chapter holds in store for the old Ruppert roof.  

History from behind.  (T. Rinaldi)


"A Spectacular Spectacular," Signs of the Times Magazine, December 1962, pp 46-47.

"200 Foot Trade Name," Signs of the Times Magazine, September 1952, p 21.

The Artkraft Strauss Records collection at the NYPL

Fabricating the old Kent sign at the Artkraft Strauss shop in the 1970s.  (NYPL)

Sunday, January 10, 2016


A late addition to December's "Lights Out 2015" post: dial CNN for Columbus Circle Neon No-more.  This recent feature over at the Shorpy blog reminded me that CNN's big neon spectacular over Columbus Circle vanished over the summer of 2015, as reported by the Daily News and Crain's New York.  

CNN has left its perch at Columbus Circle after 10 years. (T. Rinaldi)

Its replacement is a giant flatscreen jumbotron-type thing of the variety that have displaced most of the neon from Times Square in recent years. Though the CNN sign was only ten years old, it was descended from a series of roof signs that held down this perch for generations.  Its soulless replacement seems to mark the coup de grace in the desecration of the art deco skyscraper below.   


 ProjectNeon reports that Riverside Liquors (previously profiled with this post) has been forced to take down its venerable neon sign, an Upper West Side survivor for more than 60 years.

(T. Rinaldi)

 Check out the work of John Baeder, chronicler of neon signs, whose book "John Baeder's Road Well Taken" came out late in 2015.
 In West Chelsea, be sure to stop by and admire the neon art of Deborah Kass at the Paul Kasmin Gallery (through Jan 23 2015).
 An oldie but a goodie: enjoy this 2010 tribute to the neon of New York's Capital District, from the All Over Albany blog (thanks to Rob Yasinsac for bringing this to my attention). 
 If you haven't yet, listen in on the 99% Invisible podcast's recent "Tube Benders" episode.
 A project to preserve the historic neon of Boise, Idaho.
 Black Seed, a new cafe, has opened in the former DiRobertis Pasticceria space on First Ave in the East Village. 
 Meanwhile, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reports that the real DiRobertis' has actually been reborn, in Clifton, NJ.

(Stuart Gewirtzman)

 And finally, one of Long Island's most spectacular neon storefronts has gone dark with the closing of Rockville Center's venerable Palace of Wong late last year. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lights Out 2015: Signs We Lost This Year

Another year, another litany of lost neon.  I can't quite tell whether 2015's losses were less painful than those of previous years, or if I've just become desensitized after so many years of small businesses carnage in New York.  As we mark this year's casualties, let's resolve to celebrate and protect what we have left in the year ahead.

Hinsch's Confectionery, 8518 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn (installed c. 1948)

It is almost a relief to report that the long, torturous death of this once-lovely neighborhood institution has finally run its course in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.  The last of Hinsch's old neon, until recently one of the most splendid ensembles of midcentury signage anywhere in New York, disappeared earlier this year.  In a could-be-worse turn of events, the space now belongs to a Stewart's ice cream franchise.    

Reynold's Bar, 710 West 180th St., Manhattan  (installed c. 1959*)

Reynold's was well worth the trip uptown for its quietly atmospheric surrounds and, of course, for its exceptionally stirring neon, which wrapped the northwesterly corner of Broadway and West 180th Street from time immemorial.  The bar tenders hung up their white aprons this past March.  

Blumstein Department Store, 230 West 125th St., Manhattan (Installed 1936)

Long after the departure of this Harlem department store, Blumstein's enormous streamlined neon sign remained as an evocative relic from the days when 125th Street shimmered in neon glory. The sign was the work of Artkraft Strauss, makers of most of the iconic Times Square spectaculars of the 20th Century.  More recently clad in newer signage for Touro College, the whole thing finally came down about a year ago.

United Airlines (Hanger Signage), LaGuardia Airport, Queens (installed c. 1960)

In an world where corporate branding meticulously erases all traces of its own past, United's ancient neon lettering beaming out over the taxi corral at LaGuardia survived against all the odds.  The sign finally vanished about a year ago when the Port Authority leveled the historic (1939) hangers behind it.  Equally improbable relic signs for American Airlines survive nearby, for now.

La Parisienne Restaurant, 910 Seventh Ave., Manhattan (installed c. 1968*)

This humble coffee shop offered a haven of down-to-earth hospitality in a part of midtown Manhattan where ultra-high rents leave almost no room for even remotely ephemeral parts of the urban landscape.  La Parisienne bid adieu back in February.

Trash & Vaudeville, 4 St. Mark's Pl., Manhattan

Trash & Vaudeville, celebrated "punk rock mainstay" of the East Village, is set to wrap-up a 40-year run on St. Mark's Place imminently. The fringe clothier has reportedly secured another space in the neighborhood. 

Manhattan Color Labs, 4 West 20th St., Manhattan

Manhattan Color Labs actually seems to have closed back in July 2014.  Its disappearance perhaps speaks more to the ascent of digital photography than to the challenges faced by New York's small business owners.  

Raccoon Lodge, 59 Warren St., Manhattan

The Raccoon Lodge and its sign seem far older than their 33 years, suggesting an apple fallen nigh in the shade of some spiritual ancestor.  An under-age visit to this establishment back in my own wayward youth is perhaps what crystallized the affection I harbor for the signs to which this blog is dedicated.      The Raccoon will pack it in on New Year's Eve. The entire block is slated to be bulldozed to make way for a luxury residential high rise.

* = date indicated by records at NYC DOB


 Jeremiah's 2015 Vanishings


 Lights Out 2014
 Lights Out 2013
 Lights Out 2012
 Lights Out 2011

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Neon Relic in Sunset Park

In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a mysterious neon relic hangs disguised on the facade of a modest little building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 17th Street.  I spotted it about a year ago, while walking-off a hearty feast of Czech goulash and pilsner at nearby Korzo.  There overhead, a telltale flourish of ornamental sheet metal trim peeks out from a sandwich of ordinary, newish signboards.  

612 5th Ave, Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

One of the city's very oldest electric signs survives within. The sign's historic appearance is revealed in old photographs by Percy Loomis Sperr, viewable at the New York Public Library's revamped online image archive.  For years during the Great Depression, the NYPL sent Mr. Sperr all over New York photographing ordinary street scenes.  The result of this effort is a survey that almost amounts to a Google Streetview of New York in the 1920s and 30s.  


The Sperr photos show our Sunset Park ghost sign in all its neon splendor, advertising a corner chemist, with DRUGS spelled out in classic 1930s "thick-and-thin" lettering garnished by little geometric frills that mark this as a prime example of the work produced by New York's booming neon sign industry in the early-to-mid 1930s.  The drug store itself is long vanished now.  The little storefront appears to have housed a second hand shop in the early 1980s.  Today this corner hosts a crucial quality-of-life kingpin for any New York neighborhood: a bagel shop.   


The neon enthusiast wonders:  could this relic be exhumed and restored, perhaps even re-lit for all to enjoy as one of the oldest surviving remnants of the early days of New York neon?  Could the bagel shop below live with a big sign outside advertising a drug store that no longer exists?  Would the odd newcomer or neighborhood outsider, erroneously lured here in search of Tylenol or toothpaste, be consoled in their frustration by the charm of such a unique landmark of the streetscape?  As we pause in contemplation, this rare heirloom of New York's ancient neon past remains forgotten, hidden in plain sight.

(Google StreetView)


 Sad (if not surprising) news from Brooklyn: Hinch's of Bay Ridge has finally bitten the dust completely, the last of its neon gone - via the Brooklyn Eagle and ProjectNeon.
 Keep an eye out for upcoming events related to the release of James and Karla Murray's new book "Storefront II" - a continuation of their previous work by the same name.
 In Troy (upstate NY), a movement to preserve the signs of the late great South End Tavern.
 The Blu-Bell tolls its last: death for a neon motel in Colonie (New York). 
 From the NYT, a romantic homage to the fading neon of Hong Kong.
 Cool news from this summer - a neon re-lighting at Evansville, Indiana's historic greyhound depot.  
 In Baltimore, a garden of preserved signs.  
 For the neon bookshelf, a really nice looking new book on Warsaw Neon by author Ilona Karwinska (who also gave us the book Polish Cold War Neon).
 From the typography department (not neon) - A design tribute to Jean Baptiste de Pian's "Alphabet Picturesque" of 1843.
 A fascinating gallery of 1970s Detroit signscapes by photographer Donn Thorson... 
  ...and a project to document and preserve Detroit's historic signage today.
 And last but certainly not least: great news from LA (Glendale), where the Museum of Neon Art is finally set to re-open in its permanent new home.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Neon Film Screening

The NY Obscura Cinema Club will host a screening of "Gasper and Son," a documentary featuring father-and-son neon signer makers Gasper and Robbie Ingui of Artistic Neon in Ridgewood, Queens (and interviews with yours truly).  Here's what you need to know:

DATE:       OCTOBER 19, 2015
TIME:       7:00 PM TO 9:00 PM (EDT)
COST:       $14.00

(Gasper & Son)

"The NY Obscura Society Cinema Club celebrates its formation with the screening of two documentaries about unusual realities of the contemporary world. Join both filmmakers for Q & A after the film."

Check out the Gasper and Son site for more information and the official trailer.

(Gasper & Son)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Say Pepsi, Please

This week is your chance to speak up in support of the proposed designation of the historic Pepsi Sign in Long Island City as an official New York City Landmark.  New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission will convene on Thursday, October 8 to decide whether or not to protect the Pepsi Sign, which has been calendared for a hearing since 1988.  Built by the prolific sign makers Artkraft Strauss c.1936, Pepsi is now among the very last of many similar signs that once characterized the New York waterfront for most of the 20th century.

Pepsi-Cola, a landmark in all ways but one.  (T. Rinaldi)

To date, not a single historic sign in New York has been granted Landmark status in its own right, though other cities from Boston to Los Angeles have protected signs of similar scale.  For want of Landmark status, Brooklyn's iconic Kentile Floors and Eagle Clothes signs vanished in recent years.  You can voice your support for the Pepsi Sign by sending a short e-mail to Commissioner Meenakshi Srinivasan at:


You can read the text of my letter to Commissioner Srinivasan below.  Stay tuned for word on the Commission's decision.

Dear Commissioner Srinivasan:

I write to support the proposed designation of the historic Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City as a protected New York City Landmark.  In researching my book New York Neon (W.W. Norton, 2012), I found that enormous illuminated spectaculars such as the Pepsi Sign were once character-defining features of the New York City waterfront.   Today, it is one of the very last surviving examples of similar structures that once beamed out across the harbor from all five boroughs and New Jersey. 

For want of designated status, similar signs (Kentile Floors and Eagle Clothes, to name two) have vanished from the skyline in recent years, much to the regret of New Yorkers for whom these unique structures had stood as familiar beacons for generations.  While cultural heritage agencies in cities from Boston to Los Angeles have acted to protect historic signs like these, New York has yet to designate any such sign as a Landmark in its own right. 

Though un-designated, the Pepsi Sign has demonstrated its unique appeal as a cultural landmark in unusual ways.  It has been replicated at Citi Field, has outlived the building upon which it once stood, and has been installed as the focal point of a new public park.  Many New Yorkers, I have found, wrongly assume it has already been Landmarked.  In fact, of course, it remains unprotected, leaving it vulnerable to vanishing as Kentile, Eagle and so many other signs have vanished through the years. 

I hope you will agree that losing the Pepsi Sign would be a regrettable blow to our city’s cultural landscape.  Please act to extend protected status to a structure that today stands as a landmark in every sense but one.   


Thomas E. Rinaldi