The Dalles’ National Neon Sign Museum transports visitors to golden era of US advertising - OPB

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David Benko opened the National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles in 2019 which contains roughly 30 neon signs, some of which are nearly 100 years old. shop sign

The Dalles’ National Neon Sign Museum transports visitors to golden era of US advertising - OPB

The signs at the National Neon Sign Museum represent a small sampling drawn from Benko's personal collection which he started accumulating more than 40 years ago.

The museum has more than 20,000 square feet of illuminated signs, collectibles and interactive displays, dating from the late 1800's through the 1960's.

The museum houses one of the largest collections of neon storefront signs in the world.

Ironically, there’s no neon sign outside the historic Elks building on East Second Street to mark the location of the National Neon Sign Museum which opened in The Dalles in 2019. But once inside, there’s no mistaking where you are. Visitors can explore four galleries containing different time periods, from the 1880s through the 1960s, to track the development of neon signs for the advertising industry. The signs hail from the personal collection of David Benko, the executive director and founder of the museum, who acquired his first neon sign at the age of 14. Benko is in the process of building out the 7,000 square-foot basement to use for workshops and apprenticeships in neon sign making and sign painting. Benko gives us a tour of the museum to share some of the rarest objects in his extensive collection, and his efforts to preserve this art form by inspiring the next generation of artisan sign makers and restorers.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The National Neon Sign Museum opened right here in The Dalles in 2019, a labor of love from the longtime neon sign collector, maker and historian, David Benko. He took us on a private tour of the museum yesterday. I asked him how it all began.

David Benko: I started collecting when I was 9-10 years old.

Miller: Started collecting neon signs?

Benko: I started collecting advertising which pretty quickly got into me finding small pieces of neon and different stuff. I’ve never been a collector, at all, of beer signs, more American nostalgia. It just drew me in in a certain way. And I’ve always liked sharing my passion with people. I got into the sign industry in 1988 after graduating from college. At that point, my collection really boomed because I was buying and selling, trading with other collectors, restoring stuff for people, getting maybe half the sign in trade for the other half of restoring the other half. And so the collection just built and built and built.

I opened the first neon sign museum, the United States in around 1989 in Camas, Washington. And we were there for four years, closed down, and worked with the city of Vancouver for a long period of time trying to land a location downtown. We just never could find either the right space or something that we could afford to renovate or it just was one of those things and just started having children and got three great boys that are all in their twenties now. Finally, somebody came along and said, “hey, there’s this amazing building.” And I said “I don’t know if I’m quite ready yet,” and I asked where it was and he said “it’s in The Dalles,” and I said, “The Dalles?”

Miller: You were in Vancouver at the time?

Benko: Yes, we were in Vancouver at the time. And so he said that yes it was in The Dalles and I said I stopped in The Dalles for gas and coffee on my way home from a road trip, that’s it. After we were done giggling about that, he told me where it was and gave me the address. I had it in my wallet for probably three months and one night I couldn’t sleep. So what do you do? You clean your wallet out? And so I’m cleaning out my wallet . . .

Miller: We have very different lives. [Laughter] Okay, that’s how you deal with sleeplessness.

Benko: Yeah, there you go. But I see this address and I type it on the internet and I see this building, and and and I thought, wow, this can’t be the building, it’s just way too cool. And so I end up typing it again, get the zip code, get everything correct and it’s the same building. I could see the For Sale sign in the photo. I woke up my wife and she asked what time it was. I said “it’s three in the morning, but what are we doing tomorrow?” Then I said, “We’re going to The Dalles!” So we came out here, met with one of the urban development directors, toured the building and it was a wreck, just as we walked through it, I think both my wife and I could picture how we could transform it.

Miller: I bet you could talk about this for hours and hours and hours. But what’s the brief version of the birth of neon for science?

Benko: I would say that it goes back a very, very long time, but if you want to sort of boom forward to closer to the mid 1800s is when a lot of things really started happening much quicker. From early on, there was a priest that was carrying a thermometer with mercury inside of it at night and walking back from his friend’s house and he noticed it glowing. So they started realizing that certain gasses had the ability to glow. So that is when the idea that there are gasses in the environment that we could use for light if we could figure out how to segregate them, light them, etcetera.

Miller: What’s right in front of us here?

Benko: This is actually probably one of the rarest things in the building and probably one of the rarest pieces of neon that there is. We have a large blow up of the original 1911 patent, which was the application that was approved in 1915.

Miller: It says,”System of Illuminating Luminescent Tubes. Application filed November 9, 1911,” and has G. Claude there. So he’s a French guy?

Benko: Georges Claude, or “George Occlude,” is how you would actually pronounce it in France. He was the one who patented the electrode which is basically similar to the filament in a light bulb. So you have an electrode on either end which would excite the gas inside the tube. So this is the original 1911 patent tube.

Miller: So this is the original tube that Georges Claude created.

Miller: How did you get it?

Benko: I searched for it for about 25-30 years and ultimately was about ready to quit and then I found a black and white photograph online of a very unusual tube that was on display in Paris in 1960. I knew that was the 50th anniversary of Georges Claude’s first display of neon at the Grand Palais. So I just really started kind of leaning into that and I was sending a lot of letters to Europe, trying to find anybody who knew anything about it. Ultimately, I don’t want to say I stumbled into it, but I found relatives that actually knew where it was and so I moved forward and was able to purchase it. I’ve made great connections with a lot of collectors in Europe as well as the school Georges Claude went to and found a lot more information than I ever thought I would.

Miller: And you went to Paris and brought it back?

Benko: Yes. Three times now.

Miller: It’s not lit?

Benko: It is not lit. We are going to light it but rather than burning out the electrodes or having anything go wrong, we’re going to not use the electrodes to light it and use a modified Tesla coil that will light the gas inside of the tube without actually using the electrode.

Miller: So it will still have the glow from 1911.

Miller: Is there any neon sign from the nineteen-teens that still works?

Benko: I’ll tell you there are plenty from the 1920s. There’s no decisive known thing. If you looked online, it would tell you that the very first piece of neon in the United States was in 1923 and it was at the Earle C. Anthony Packard Dealership in Los Angeles and that is not a true fact.

Miller: Are you telling me that there is information on the internet that I shouldn’t trust?

Benko: [Laughter] You should definitely not trust that. I know how that came to be because he was a friend of mine who has now passed away. I’m not going to say it, but it was published in a book. And so then of course that became “fact” and it was published in the 70s. So that sort of became what was “fact” and it was a good good story, I guess, to move forward.

Miller: So if you’re saying that’s not necessarily true, is it the case that in the 1920s, neon signage in the US came from zero to everywhere very quickly?

Miller: Why? What do you think was special about what neon provided?

Benko: Well, if we’re looking here at the very early drugs sign, one of the most common…

Miller: So there’s “lunch,” and “drugs.” What else is here? “Hotel.” And these are signs that have incandescent bulbs embedded in them.

Benko: Either on the outside like that ampersand, or this one actually, which is kind of unique because light bulbs were incredibly expensive from 1880-90s. That right there actually only has five light bulbs in it and those are just glass beads that are reflecting the light bulb from the inside.

Miller: So inside there are five light bulbs, and then we’re looking through and it looks like there are 50 individual light bulbs.

Benko: Exactly. And it’s double-sided. So with five light bulbs, you could light a two sided 10 letters.

Miller: So these are incandescent bulbs that we still have today–although I guess you’re not supposed to–predated neon signs. What did neon give to companies that wanted to advertise their wares outside that incandescent didn’t provide?

Benko: It’s hard to step back 100 years and theorize, but in general, and I think the whole world is like this, but definitely in the United States, we tend to be drawn by new things. If you saw that from a distance it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to read in the dark because those letters wouldn’t be as easy to read. They would just look like little dots. But when neon came along, you could read script, you could read block letters, you could read stuff and incredibly brighter. So I think there’s a really great draw to it. And it’s colored!

Miller: It’s funny to think about what you’re describing because right now feels like a kind of throwback, it seems like part of the draw of this museum and even just neon in general. There’s a retro feel to it, but what you’re describing is the time when it was the exact opposite, when it was the new thing and, and just something the technology itself was exciting.

Miller: Let’s go to the throwback time because as we keep walking here. So what’s this sign?

Benko: Right. The signs that are now in this gallery past the Claude Neon Room are the first generation of “In America.” So they are really our late twenties to late thirties era, pre-World War II.

Miller: This one says “Pittsburgh Paints,” that’s in a bright orange, and below it in green is “Smooth As Glass” and that’s written in pretty impressive cursive. Then there’s “Goodyear Tires.”

Benko: And this is primarily when the only two glasses that you had to get that green—well the only two gasses that have ever been used, our neon gas and argon gas–that’s actually stained glass, it’s yellow stained glass with blue gas inside of it. They were very limited on colors. In fact, if you even look on here, this sign says red, blue, green, yellow and now white. Those were the only colors that existed.

Miller: That was a big deal.

Benko: Oh, a big deal.

Miller: So that’s a sign of a sign maker that would be advertising for businesses and if you want to make a sign, now we can give you white as well.

Miller: Do you have a favorite sign in this room?

Benko: I probably like this sign right here, which says “Lunch,” non-neon on top, but the word “Steaks” running down it. And it’s one of very few signs that was manufactured by  companies called Neil and then Rainbow Light. More people, more collectors would probably have heard of Rainbow Light.

Miller: As we keep walking, it seems like the signs get even more elaborate here. Here there’s a “Mobile Gas” with the flying Pegasus horses, “Cadillac Service,” “Buster Brown Shoes.” When you bring a bunch of older people in their eighties—my understanding is that a lot of the most trafficked days, that’s when cruise ships on the Columbia come here–and they come into this room, what do you hear?

Benko: Oh, they love it. I’ve often said that signs are a lot like songs and anybody whatever age can relate to that. I don’t know when you grew up, but I kind of grew up in the eighties and sometimes I’m not the kind of person that leans back into eighties music. I’ve always liked modern music, but there are times where you hear some song and it reminds you of a memory very decisively.

Benko: And I think signs are the same way. They will come in here, you haven’t been to the ballroom yet, but there are times where people from the cruise ship will go on the whole walk. I set them free out of this room, they’ll go to the ballroom and it’ll be two hours and I haven’t seen anybody in the building and I’m getting ready to close up for the day. I walk upstairs and there’s an older couple just sitting on one of the benches up there and they startle me. I say I had no idea anybody was in here. And the lady says, “oh well we were talking about when we first met and when he proposed to me.” So it does bring back for some of these people that are 60, 70, 80-years old memories that are 50-60 years old, and seeing these brings back memories that they maybe hadn’t really thought of in years and years and years. So that’s always exciting for me. That’s probably one of the best compliments that you can get is that it works.

Miller: What does the future of lit signs look like? I guess LED seem inescapable now in terms of the way we light our lives because it’s so much more efficient. So where does that leave neon or signs in general?

Benko: When I first started seeing LEDs, I said there’s absolutely no way in the world that they can ever make an LED that’s going to look like a neon tube. And so now 15-20 years later from probably the first time I ever saw one, we’re kind of there now, where they actually are very close. At this point, I’ve seen some that are 270 degrees, where if you look at it from the front, it looks like neon. In fact, it was when I was in London, before the world shut down because of COVID, that I started seeing colors that I had never seen before and on neon signs and windows. So I finally hopped off the bus and looked and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is an LED sign.” And so they are so close now. There’s this kind of feeling that you have. Things move forward. How did the guy who was making light bulb signs when neon came along feel, right?

Miller: And that’s how you feel now. You said it’s unfair because things can be accomplished with LEDs that can be accomplished with neon and it makes you as an old fashioned neon guy jealous?

Benko: Well, I don’t know that jealousy is the right word but here’s really what has dawned on me is this: Things move forward, things are going to continue to move forward and you can’t stop that. So when you think of something like the bronze era, it was this very important time in history, but then it just ended. And now where would you expect to see something bronze? In a museum. That’s what I think you’ll see. I can’t imagine any collector putting an LED faux sign on an original neon piece, but I think that neon is going to be what’s used for that. But LEDs will probably be used in the mom and pop grocery stores and who knows what?

Miller: Thanks very much for letting us stop by here.

Benko: Absolutely. It was my pleasure.

Miller: That’s David Benko, the director of the National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles.

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The Dalles’ National Neon Sign Museum transports visitors to golden era of US advertising - OPB

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