Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Globe Neon Sign Co.

No backward glance at New York's heritage of neon would be complete without paying tribute to the Globe Neon Sign Co. of the Bronx.  During its five decades of operation, Globe issued some of New York's finest storefront neon.  More than 35 years after the company disappeared, Globe signs can still be found in at least three of the five boroughs.

Display ad from the 1960 Manhattan yellow pages. (New-York Historical Society)

Like most neon shops of its stature in New York, Globe vanished with little record of its origins.  Known variously through the years as the Globe Sign Co., Globe Neon Tube Corp., Globe Neon Signs, the Globe Sign Co., Globe Signs and finally as the Globe Sign Corp., the firm was established in 1924, the same year neon signs likely first appeared in New York.  Originally headquartered in Manhattan, by 1935 Globe set up shop in the south Bronx, where it remained at several addresses for the next forty years. Its prominent early works included the diabolically appealing vertical sign of the evocatively named Barrel Of Fun nightclub on West 51st Street, which appeared in a lesser-known photograph by Andreas Feininger.

An early sign by Globe for a Columbus Avenue eatery, c. 1934 (top).  The Barrell of Fun, at 133 West 51st Street, installed c. 1935 (middle).  Dynamic Appliances, 65th Street and Broadway, installed c. 1950, featured an animated illumination sequence and scintillating incandescent bulbs (bottom). (Signs of the Times Magazine, Feb. 34, Apr. 35, Aug. 50, used with permission)

For most of its life, Globe was run by a legendary signman called David Cheifetz. Mention his name to any veteran of New York's neon business and you'll get a guffaw and an eye roll and the stories will start flowing.  "If you look up the word 'shyster' in the dictionary, his picture is the first thing you see," one former colleague told me.  A wily character, Cheifetz is said to have changed the legal spelling of his name to dodge a record number of unpaid parking tickets.  One story holds that he would spring unannounced "installation fees" on customers after unveiling their newly completed signs at his shop, effectively holding the signs for ransom until the client paid him to release the job for installation.  Another tale has it that he would wait for a new sign to pass its required city inspection and then substitute used transformers for the new ones that had just passed muster with the inspector.

Globe manufacturer's tags on signs at Catania Shoes in the Bronx (top) and at the former Weathervane Inn on East 29th Street in Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Still, looking at the impressive body of work he left behind, one gets the sense that these stories may have evolved from friendly jibes at the expense of an indomitable personality as much as from actual deeds or misdeeds. "When he talked, his eyes blinked and his lips flapped a thousand times a minute," recalled Jack Saraceno of Lettera Signs in the Bronx, who worked under Cheifetz in the early 1970s.  If Cheifetz were alive today, he might answer his accusers simply by pointing to the significant number of his works that can still be found around the city.  Prominent surviving works by Globe include the inventive sign for the Carnegie Deli in Midtown, and the instantly recognizable sign for the Clover Delicatessen on Second Avenue and 34th Street. 

Clover Delicatessen, 621 Second Ave., Manhattan, installed 1956. (T. Rinaldi)

Cheifetz ran Globe through the early 1970s, when he retired and sold the company to an outfit called the Award Sign Co, thus ending Globe's 50-year run.  (Award was later bought out by the West Side Neon Sign Co. of the Bronx, which itself was swallowed up by Artkraft Strauss in 1988.)  What became of Cheifetz afterward is unclear.  Some say he retired to Florida.  Others say he lived into his 90s, investing in a number of Queens liquor stores near the end of his life.  For now, the details of his final disposition are as murky as those surrounding his entry to the sign business (perhaps someone out there knows more?).  But his mark on the city remains here to see, a legacy in light that comes aglow each evening when the sun goes down. 

Please drop me a line if you know anything more about Mr. Cheifetz or the Globe Neon Sign Co.

Catania's Shoe Shop (at 3015 Westchester Ave. in the Bronx.) boasts what is likely Globe's oldest surviving work, installed c. 1945. (T. Rinaldi)

V&T Italian Restaurant, 1024 Amsterdam Avenue, Manhttan, c. 1963. (T. Rinaldi)

Il Campanile Restaurant (ex-Weathervane Inn), 30 East 29th Street, Manhattan, installed c. 1960. This sign enjoys a split-second cameo in the opening minutes of the 1966 film Valley of the Dolls. (T. Rinaldi)

Lenox Liquors (ex-Paris Liquors), 100 West 124th Street, installed in 1959 (left), and Home of Cheers Liquor Store, 261 West 18th Street, Manhattan, installed c. 1960 (right). (T. Rinaldi)

The M&G Diner, 383 West 125th Street, Manhattan, installed c. 1966.  As at the Carnegie Deli, neon tubes installed over back-lit plexi sign faces.  The M&G closed in 2008 but the sign survived a few years longer, finally disappearing in 2011. (T. Rinaldi)

Cavalier Restaurant, 85-19 37th Avenue, Queens, installed c. 1960.  This sign featured what appears to be a wood grain porcelain enamel sign face, something I have seen nowhere else.  Both restaurant and sign went bye-bye in 2009. (T. Rinaldi)

Globe's best-known surviving work, at the Carnegie Delicatessen, 854 Seventh Ave., Manhattan, made c. 1960.  Like the M&G diner, this sign featured neon tubes mounted over a back-lit plexiglas fascia, making it a bit of a hybrid. (T. Rinaldi)


• The final proofs are here for the neon book!  One more round of revisions and then that's it...

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