Neon signs lit up the night on Route 66 and beyond. University of New Mexico’s Mark Childs and Ellen Babcock flipped the neon switch once more through their new book The Zeon Files.
Childs, professor of architecture and associate dean of research in the School of Architecture and Planning; and Ellen Babcock, associate professor of art and art history, in the College of Fine Arts, revealed the art and craft of neon sign making at Zeon Signs, a long time Albuquerque company.
Zeon Signs was founded as Electric Products of New Mexico in 1939, but during World War II, they shut down only to reopen again in 1946. Childs and Babcock drew from the company’s history and productivity from the mid-1950s to the 1970s.
Babcock, founding director of the non-profit organization, Friends of the Orphan Signs, regularly visited Zeon about projects and to get estimates.
“I was in their sign yard – which fills a full city block – where they have old signs and a warehouse where they still make neon signs. They also have vintage plastic letters, which are not used much anymore. I saw where they have hand drawn grids on the wall to do sign plotting. Of course, all of that is done digitally now. I saw the vestiges of how signs used to be made alongside current production processes,” she said.
One of the craftsmen, Jere Pelletier, took her through the shop to show Babcock how neon magic happens.
“He was called a tube bender or a glass blower," she said. "He shaped the curves of glass tubing over a gas flame and then filled it with gas that glows with an electric charge."
Then something not so shiny caught her eye. Long file drawers full of manila envelopes were sitting outside. “They were moved outside when the fire marshal told them they were a hazard,” she explained.
The first file she pulled was for the West Theater in Grants, N.M. “It was a pencil drawing on vellum,” she said. Ultimately, Babcock ended up offering to take all the boxes in her pickup truck to her house to get them out of the rain. “They were molding and full of dust,” she said, but she saw the value in the collection.
Art, craft and research
When Childs was at Babcock's house for a Friends of the Orphan Signs meeting, he found himself intrigued with the collection and told her, “We have to do a book!”
“The work itself is an embodiment of human joy and craftsmanship. That alone deserves attention,” said Childs.
He said that some of the commercial artists were acclaimed nationally as artists.
As a researcher, he also saw that the materials document many signs that are no more. “It’s both an important part of the Route 66 cultural history, and a resource we can continue to build upon,” he said.
The drawings are beautifully hand drafted. Even the scale figures, drawings of people used to show the size of a sign, are carefully rendered. “The scale figures showed the interest and pride in the work itself,” Childs said.
As an urban designer, Childs is intrigued by the impact of the signs.
“In their time, they created a hedge of signage that defined the street," he said. "They provided a sense of enclosure. Central Avenue was made by the signs. If you were to take away the signs, it could be any street anywhere."
In the mid-20th century the signs moved the definition of the street from a wall of buildings to a row of lights.
For those who remember Albuquerque from the mid-1950s to the 1970s, the neon signs are burned into their minds: Paris Shoe Store, the Indian School Plaza arrow, Fiesta Bowl and of course, Terrace Drive In with the flamenco dancer whose skirt swayed seductively lighting up the night.
“The Fiesta Bowl was repurposed as an example of an inventive way to preserve signs,” he said. And the Sundowner Motel sign was redesigned as a public art project.
The signs represent an era, but the lesson they teach is timeless. “We could learn from them for other infrastructure – cell towers, manhole covers and fire hydrants, for example,” he said.
Working on the book gave Babcock a great deal of satisfaction.
“I enjoyed bringing the book to the sign guys. They saw it as recognition of their craft and expertise. They also enjoyed talking about the company – their fathers, uncles and grandfathers. Many of them have memories of their childhoods spent helping to put up the signs,” she said.
The Zeon Files is a UNM Press Publication. Support for the book also came from the City of Albuquerque’s Urban Enhancement Trust Fund and friends of the Zeon Corporation.
The inventory of the Zeon Sign Company records from 1955-1972 is available through the Rocky Mountain Online Archive. Those interested in donating to the processing and restoration of the files can go to UNM Fund.
Childs and Babcock were featured on a recent NMPBS episode of ¡Colores!