The first attraction that Ruth & I saw on our recent trip was not far from home and was new in 2018, the National Neon Sign Museum in a town called The Dalles in Oregon. We were there in less than an hour after leaving Vancouver, WA. It was a shock to learn that this museum used to be called Rocket City Neon and began its existence in Vancouver, WA before we moved near there. Seeing it took some of the loss out of not seeing many neon signs in a city that is trying to make a tourist attraction out of its historic neons, Tucson, AZ. We tried but failed to see Tucson’s relatively new Ignite Sign Art Museum when we were there last April.
The new National Sign Museum is in a 1910 Elks Temple in The Dalles at 200 East 3rd Street downtown. One website described it as “grandiose” but it’s not “magnificent” and “awe-inspiring” yet, and I think they meant simply grand. This museum is doing very well because it attracts folks like me and Ruth, and many of the tourist boats that ply the Columbia River that flows by the Dalles. These tourist boats are in the habit of stopping to see this new museum that does tend to attract an older clientele, people who remember neon signs from long ago.
David Benko and his wife Kirsten are the forces behind this new museum. He especially has a lifelong interest in neon. David once ran the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, OH. He greeted us in his new neon museum in The Dalles and gave us a tour of it. During this tour he demonstrated a machine that he is very proud of. Neon comes from the Greek word NEO, which means “New”. The natural color of neon gas is red, and waves of electricity make this gas glow that color.
The name most associated with the history of neon is George Claude. He was a French engineer and inventor who developed neon tube lighting, and he invented the machine that David Benko is so proud of and demonstrates during his tour. The explanation of it wonders went right over the heads of his listeners, and he might do better to skip this demonstration despite his high interest in this rare machine. I was interested to learn that the first product advertised with neon was the Packard car in Los Angeles in 1923. I also failed to realize that early neon ads attracted people who were still getting used to light bulbs and were mainly immigrants who needed to see single word neon signs to learn English.
At some point in our visit to the new Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles we were watching a not-so-good movie about making neon tubes. If it were up to me, I would skip this film and get to the viewing of neon signs quicker. This is the real reason why visitors come here in the first place, and the film’s narrator is dry and speaks with a thick German accent. I also would stop investing in very old movie posters to decorate this museum. People who remember the movie The Glenn Miller Story would probably rather see more old neon signs.
There seems to be an increasing interest in neon art. There are now neon museums in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and Philadelphia, PA. The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati is a gem, and I really appreciated its lively demonstrations of neon tubing creation. I really like the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA that specializes in new neon artists. As far as the new museum in The Dalles goes, I’m glad I went upstairs to see the former Elks Ballroom, the store fronts, and the neon window displays like the one above. David Benko is hoping to expand into the basement and offer classes in neon sign making. I hope he does’t lose his focus on the real reason why people come to see his museum. They want to see many vivid neon signs.