Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Signman's Album

One of the more fortuitous breakthroughs I had in researching this neon book of mine was when I managed to get in touch with Justin Langsner, the third-generation proprietor of the LaSalle Sign Corp. of Brooklyn.  In addition to sharing some incredibly valuable insights and anecdotes, Mr. Langsner lent me a small trove of old photographs he happened to have lying around, a selection of which are reproduced here below.  Not glamour shots, these are working reference photos dating from the 1960s and 70s. They offer an interesting window into the neon business in New York during a time of change both for the city and for the signs themselves.

LaSalle made and installed these signs for the original Papaya King, at Third Avenue and East 86th Street, in 1964.  The signs survive today.  (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

Bressner Appliances, at 1498 Third Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, installed c. 1963.  The vertical sign survives, its neon tubes removed and sign faces covered over. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

A LaSalle service truck. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.) 

Eneslow Shoes, at 2563 Webster Avenue in the Bronx. Eneslow has since decamped (the company is still alive and well elsewhere), but the sign remains in place, sans-neon, ghosts of its old lettering still visible. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.) 

A boom truck (not LaSalle's) dressed for labor action.  Most of New York's neon signs were union made. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.) 

An insurance job:  like other sign companies, LaSalle's services included sizing up damage claims for insurance companies.  This photo shows Krasne's Super Market, at 1008 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, which had sustained damage during a storm. Both supermarket and sign are gone today, but a big letter "K" in the masonry of the cornice above remains.  (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.) 

Top: Smiler's Delicatessen, 106 Seventh Avenue South, in Greenwich Village (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)  Bottom: Frame enlargement from the film Manhattan (1979), showing Smiler's at far left.

LaSalle's sign for Smiler's Delicatessen on Seventh Avenue South made a small cameo in the classic opening sequence to Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan.  "Smiler's was run by a very smart old lady - Sarah Smiler, I think," Mr. Langsner remembers.  Sam Langsner, Justin's father, once happened to notice some delivery men pilfering from a shipment of merchandise they had brought to the store, and mentioned it to old Mrs. Smiler.  "Sam," she said, "listen:  I live in a great big penthouse apartment, and I make more money than the President of the United States.  If you think I'm gonna spend $10,000 on some security guy to tell me I'm losing $5,000 worth of merchandise, you're crazy."    

As demand for neon waned in the late 1960s, LaSalle produced a growing number of acrylic panel signs lit by off-the-shelf fluorescent tubes. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

An interesting evolutionary study can be made between LaSalle's signs for Gray's Papaya, installed in 1972, and those made for the Papaya King eight years earlier.  In those few years, porcelain enamel sign faces and neon illumination made way for plexiglas, aluminum and standard fluorescents.  But hand-drawn, original lettering had not yet yielded to computer-generated fonts. The Gray's Papaya signs have been slightly altered over the years, but their inventive lettering remains intact today. 

Signs for Gray's Papaya, 2090 Broadway (at West 72nd Street) in Manhattan, around the time of their installation in 1972.  (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

As any New York signman will attest, one meets all sorts of characters in the neon business.  Mr. Langsner recalls checking on a job at one of the Char Broiled Flame Steak joints around Times Square, circa 1971.  "These two men came in dressed as women - big husky black guys - and asked to use the ladies room," he remembers.  "The owner told them no way, so they pulled out a knife and said he'd better let them use the bathroom.  The owner ran behind the counter and picked up a meat cleaver.  There they were, right in the middle of the lunch hour, it looked like they were gonna kill each other."  The episode was a snapshot in a period of transition - a sign of the times, one might say.  As luck would have it, a pair of cops showed up (to get lunch) and managed to broker a peace settlement before things got out of hand.  In the neon city, never a dull moment.

Char Broiled Flame Steaks, on Broadway just above Times Square, c. 1970. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)  

MANY THANKS to Justin Langsner for the photos and anecdotes in this post, and to Robbie and Gasper Ingui of Artistic Neon for helping to put us in touch. Be on the lookout for another post down the road tracing the history of LaSalle Signs.


• Word by way of an e-mail from Kyle S. that Walter's Hardware in Astoria has closed, leaving its tubeless neon sign at risk.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Harlem Neon Nocturne

Forgive me - a short post this week, but a pretty exciting one, I think.  I ran across two fascinating film clips the other day.  They show 125th Street in Harlem on a cold winter's night in 1964.  If you like the old signs as much as I do, this footage will really get your blood flowing. 

Click here for the first film.  (Critical Past)

One of the most fascinating things about these old films is that they show how so many storefront signs were once animated.  Animation is gone from virtually all of the signs from this period that survive in New York today - Manganaro's flashing sign on Ninth Avenue being about the only one that I can think of that still so much as blinks on and off. It's a pretty safe bet that a lot of the old signs that survive today were intended to flash when they were installed.  As the years went by, their owners likely grew weary of having to service their clunky old flashing mechanisms.

Click here for the second film.  (Critical Past

I came across these films in searching around for old photos of the wonderful vertical sign at the former Blumstein Department Store, which I confirmed this weekend at the NYPL is the work of the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp., installed in 1936.  The sign still exists under very boring new vinyl faces installed for Touro College.  The cover-up is a bit of a heartbreak, but we can be grateful the sign is still there at all: of the many that appear in this footage, Blumstein's is one of only two that survive - the Apollo Theater (installed 1940) being the other, though what you'll see there now is a good facsimile of the original. The others - the Spot Lite Bar, Baby Grand Chinese, Lido Bar & Grill, Sugar Ray's, Loew's Victoria, West End theater, Ripley's Clothes, London Character Shoes - have closed up or vanished.

Unfortunately, Critical Past (the web site that hosts these films) doesn't seem to offer information on the provenance of this footage.  The date given (February 1969) seems to be wrong, given what's showing at the Loew's Victoria.  They appear to have been shot by the same person, who did a lovely job indeed.  Critical Past does have a great variety of interesting old films, though, including more historic footage of neon signs in New York and elsewhere - all of it for sale.


• The neon book has reached draft galleys - lookin' good!
• Bad news from Brooklyn: Hinsch's in trouble again (by way of JVNY)
• I have seen the Artkraft Strauss collection at the NYPL, and it is good.
• Check out Cold War Polish Neon online (and brush up on your Polish).
• Over at Project Neon, Kirsten has brought a number of new (to me) old signs to light, including:
   - Westchester Pharmacy in the Bronx
   - Lorraine's Bar and Grill, also in the Bronx
   - Midland Wine & Liquor, in Jamaica
• Doh!  I missed the deadline to nominate neon signs to WNYC's "New York in 10 Objects" project.
• This weekend I head to Cincinnati, Ohio, to visit the American Sign Museum.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Los Desaparecidos

Picture it:  Tuesday, October 12, 2010.  Excitedly, I scurried to the subway from my office in midtown after work.  Destination: the Estates Pharmacy in Jamaica, Queens, where I hoped to shoot one of New York's best classic neon storefronts.  I almost made it through the turnstiles before I realized I'd left my tripod back at the office.  Fast as I could, I dashed back to grab it.  I had already shot the Estates by day and by night, but I wanted dusk shots for the neon book, and in about 45 minutes I would lose my light
Estates Pharmacy by night, August 31, 2009. (T.Rinaldi)
Back at the subway, I jammed into the uptown 6, sweat beading on my forehead.  Down the escalator to the Queens-bound E at 53rd and Lex, across the platform to the F at Roosevelt Ave., then, finally, 169th Street, second-to-last stop.  No time to waste, I pulled out the legs on my tripod as I ran up the steps.  The sky above glowed a cool blue: thank God, I'd made it just in time.  At the top of the stairs I turned, ready to take in the scene I had trekked here to shoot.

Estates Pharmacy, a heartbreaking before-and-after.  (T.Rinaldi)
But it was gone.  The folks at the Estates Pharmacy got a new sign.  Not wanting to believe my eyes, I stopped abruptly in my tracks, muttered the f-word, and then, the seven stages of grief having quickly run their course, slumped against the steel post under the green subway globe by the top of stairs.  A cop on the beat, seeing my dejected posture, stopped and asked what was wrong.  "Neon signs?  Ain't ya been to Times Square?"
College Wines & Liquors, on Flatbush Avenue by Brooklyn College, before and after.  (T.Rinaldi)
Like a recurring nightmare, I have re-lived this sorry episode over and over again in the five years I've been after New York's vanishing fleet of midcentury neon signs.  At Times Square as in Jamaica, the old girls have grown mighty scarce.  Their disappearance has been both motivating and frustrating.  On the one hand, like winning a bet against your own kid's little league team, there is a certain cold comfort that comes with having successfully documented a vanished sign.     
The P&G Bar, in its latter-day prime (top) and during dismantling in January 2009 (bottom).  The wall is blank today.  (T.Rinaldi) 

But then there are those signs that vanish before I manage to get to them.  Probably a dozen times, deceived by an outdated Google Street View image, I've schlepped across town only to find a blank wall where the sign used to be. In my "Lights Out" post at the end of 2011, I promised a gallery of vanished signs - well here it is, at  My friend Rob Yasinsac remarked that one could make a pretty good sign museum just with the ones we lost in 2011.  A small handful of these have found new homes - mostly under tarps in backyards or tucked away in storage sheds.  But most are gone for good, except in these photos.

The Artkraft Strauss files are now available for researchers at the New York Public Library!  I'll be there this weekend...


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My Neon Valentine

Valentine's Day, thank God, comes only once a year.  Apart from those rare occasions when I am actually dating someone on this grim holiday, my own V.D. ritual usually involves a 40-ounce bottle and a good romance movie - you know, something like Sid and Nancy or Elevator to the Gallows.  This year, however, I thought I'd take it up a notch and tip my hat to those establishments whose dedication to romance is truly above and beyond.

XLent Vibes, at Eighth Avenue and 37th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

I refer, of course, to New York's Smuttiest - the sex shops, porno palaces - "adult book stores," if you prefer.  Sex shops are that proverbial 800-pound gorilla in any discussion of neon's place in the American landscape.  Though neon signs have advertised all forms of businesses and services, the popular psyche long ago seized on neon's association with unseemly businesses to such an extent that the signs eventually came to seem comically incongruous in front of more wholesome establishments like churches or funeral parlors.  

Adult DVD Depot, 725 Eighth Avenue (click on image for animation). (T. Rinaldi)

Once regarded as a pestilence, the relatively few sex shops that survive in New York now seem vulnerable in a world that has passed them by. The Guiliani-era cleanup and the internet porno trade have so effectively emasculated New York's sex shops that they have come to be viewed with a fond nostalgia.  European tourists pose for pictures before the small handful that survive on Eighth Avenue near Times Square.

Peep O-Rama, formerly on 42nd Street between Sixth and Seventh, now stuffed and mounted at the Times Square Visitor Center. (T. Rinaldi)

Like a caged specimen of some once-threatening endangered species, a genuine 42nd Street PEEP O-RAMA sign now hangs in the Times Square Visitors Center, preserved with the help of the Durst Organization and lovingly restored by Let There Be Neon.  Vinyl awnings and standard plexiglas box signs meanwhile have taken the place of neon at some of the few good old fashioned sex shops that survive.

The vanished Pussycat Theater, formerly at 49th and Broadway (top) has been re-enacted at the new Bowlmor Lanes on West 44th Street (bottom). (Time-Life; T. Rinaldi)

To be sure, the glory days of neon-bedecked smut parlors are behind us.  But neon's association with these businesses continues to season our long, tempestuous love affair with this most bewitching artificial light source.  There is something we like about neon's dark side.  Perhaps it is because it reminds us a little bit of ourselves, of our own human weaknesses and shortcomings.  Or maybe it just lends character to an otherwise inanimate street furnishing.

The Grande Dame of New York sex shop neon, at Gotham City Video, 687 Eighth Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

Whatever the case may be, these sexy holdouts add much needed relief to New York's increasingly sanitized streetscapes. Long may you run, you naked neon ladies!  Hallmark holidays may come and go, but every day is Valentine's Day where neon hearts glow.

Show World Center, 669 Eighth Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

The one and only Playpen was housed in the former Ideal Theatre on Eighth Avenue and West 44th Street. The historic movie house was razed around 2007 to make way for the Intercontinental Hotel, with Shake Shack on the ground floor.  (T. Rinaldi)

A name so nice they gave it to it twice.  Sixth Avenue at 24th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

Discount DVD Video, West 40th Street just off of Eighth Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

An exciting, scintillating representation of the DVD logo at Eighth Avenue and West 47th Street.  Sadly this sign has gone dark with the eviction of the building's tenants (including the Collins Bar) to make way for an apparent redevelopment scheme. (T. Rinaldi)

Show World Center, 669 Eighth Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

The Erotica, on Eighth Avenue at West 27th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

Mixed Emotions Video, downstairs from Bare Elegance Gentlemen's Club & Lounge, at 216 West 50th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

Xcellent DVD, 515 Sixth Avenue (below 14th Street).  Neon in channel letters over a rather saucy acrylic panel sign, evoking older signs at the Carnegie Deli or the M&G Diner. (T. Rinaldi)

An old standby, on Eighth Ave. at West 38th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

Formerly at Eighth Ave. and West 47th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

NY VIP Toys, 610 Eighth Ave.  (T. Rinaldi)

Virhan's Video, 592 Eighth Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

XLent Vibes, Eighth Ave. at 37th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

Virhan's Video, 592 Eighth Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

The Erotica, Eighth Avenue at 27th Street.  Alas, sex shops too have moved toward plexiglas signs and vinyl awnings in recent years.  (T. Rinaldi)


• Welcome news that the Jade Mountain signs have been preserved and are in storage, a bit worse for wear, awaiting restoration.  More on this in a forthcoming blog post.

• A few new additions to the database at, including:

  - Potter's Men's Shop, on Castle Hill Ave. in the Bronx
  - Kramer's Pharmacy, St. Anne's Ave., Mott Haven, Bronx
  - Fuller Drug Store, Third Ave., also in the south Bronx

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Greenwich Village Neon Revisited

The blogosphere lit up like a neon Christmas tree with last week's release of a new online archive of historic photographs from New York University.  The collection, whose formal name is the "Washington Square Park (New York, N.Y.), Washington Square Area, and Campus Buildings Image Collection," reveals a treasury of midcentury New York neon that once lit the streets around NYU's Greenwich Village campus. 

In my book, I assert that neon signs characterized the streetscapes of the midcentury city.  Especially in Greenwich Village, the signs were such a characteristic part of the cityscape that almost any  assemblage of photographs from the period will be rife with classic neon.  Dozens of neon signs appear in the NYU photos.  One or two are still in place - keep an eye out for the Back Fence and Monte's Restaurant.  But most are long vanished.  Enjoy a few cropped samples here below and be sure to check out the full collection at  

The Greenwich Hotel, Bleecker Street, looking west toward Sullivan. (NYU)

Renaissance Liquors, Bleecker Street between Sullivan and MacDougal. (NYU)

The Art Theatre and Sea Village, Eighth Street, looking west from Greene St. (NYU)

Cinderella, on West 3rd Street between Thompson and Sullivan. (NYU)

West 8th Street, view east from Sixth Ave. (NYU)

The Griddle, Eighth St. Play House and Village Barn. West 8th Street, south side, looking west from MacDougal. (NYU)

The Back Fence, at Thompson and Bleecker. The lettering RESTAURANT now reads BACK FENCE. (NYU)

The Captain's Table, on Sixth Avenue South right next to Bigelow's. (NYU)

The Captain's Table, close-up revealing this as the work of the Globe Neon Sign Co (see tag next to the letter E). (NYU)

Pinto's and Ernie's, Thompson at West 3rd. (NYU)

The McDougal Tavern, on MacDougal just below Washington Square.  What's with the spelling? (NYU)

Tilli's Luncheonette, at Mercer and West 4th, 1965. (NYU)

Googie's Bar, opposite Vanderbilt Hall, 1981. (NYU)


- A nice collection of old signs - neon and other - at Forgotten New York
- At, maker identified for the ailing Playland Arcade sign at Coney Island
- Two additions to the database at the Towne Cafe and Alik Liquors, both in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn