Signs of the times

A local man collects and preserves Reno’s neon history

Photo By amy beck

It all came together at Ruby Montana’s Pinto Pony 20th Century Furnishings. On a trip to Seattle, Will Durham visited the vintage store, packed with campy and kitsch merchandise, and found an old sign from a Chinese restaurant. In neon, the words “chop suey” were spelled out along with the image of an old man with a Fu Manchu moustache.

“That’s when I realized that these signs can have a life of their own, beyond the life of the business or a building,” says Durham, explaining how he started collecting neon signs. “This was at a time when everything was closing in Reno—the Mapes, Nevada Club, Parker’s Western Wear. A lot of the old hotels on Fourth Street were being torn down, and there was a lot of really cool stuff out there.”

But this doesn’t fully explain Durham’s passion for collecting neon signs. Originally from Reno, the lights and neon on Virginia Street are something Durham remembers as a kid.

“I always appreciated them downtown and their energy,” he says. “The lights just create this excitement. From the river to the Reno arch, it was almost like a circus. The casinos all have the same product, and they have about 50 or 100 feet to try and draw people in with these elaborate displays.”

When Durham started collecting, he had no real plan for the signs, and no ideas what he wanted to do with them. It was just something he did, not because it made sense but because he felt compelled to do so. Now, Durham has a veritable piece of the history of Reno, and he wants to turn his collection of one-of-a-kind signs into a museum and share it with the public.

His enthusiasm and passion are obvious when he speaks about his collection. His appreciation for the signs goes way beyond their practicality and utility. He sees them as works of art. Durham talks about the uniqueness of each sign and the thought, skill, craft and people involved in making each one—illustrators, metal workers, painters and neon artists.

Altogether, he has around 30 in his collection—most of them from Reno and some from Sparks, Las Vegas, small Nevada towns, and elsewhere. Some of them are made of porcelain and can be cleaned. Others are painted behind the neon and sometimes need to be touched up. Sometimes the paint is so worn off, he can only guess at what they originally looked like.

“A lot of times, I like to leave the sign the way it is because the patina is so good,” says Durham. “Some of them are cracked and dirty, and it adds to it.”

Neon bibles

Durham has been involved in removing and transporting the signs from their original locations, which means putting himself into all kinds of dangerous, awkward and interesting situations.

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It took him two years to get a giant, 8 feet by 8 feet neon buffalo head that decorated the Buffalo Bar on Victorian Avenue in Sparks.

Durham says of the sign, “I remember flying right over it every time I’d fly into Reno. You could see it coming into the airport, it was so big.”

When Durham first started negotiations for the sign, the owner of the building wanted to blow it up as a publicity stunt. He thought better of it, perhaps because of public safety or because he realized it might be worth something. At one point, Durham needed to measure the sign to figure out what it would take to remove it from the building. In order to measure the buffalo head, he had to get on the rooftop of the bar. As he was leaning over the ledge, dangling his measuring tape down along the side of the sign, the wind kicked up and blew the metal measuring tape against an exposed wire.

“I got electrocuted, but I got the sign,” Durham says. “It was worth it.”

Because of the locations of the signs, Durham ventures into some seedy places. In one case, he was almost arrested for lurking in a back alley behind a Fourth Street motel. He was blinded with a spotlight and questioned by the cops who weren’t quite sure what to make of his answer to their question of what he was doing there: “I’m trying to see how the sign is attached to the building.”

He closed down Virginia Street for two days in order to remove the Harolds Club and Nevada Club signs off the buildings and is responsible for reuniting the lettering from the Harolds Club mural with the mural itself. For years, the mural—70 by 35 feet—was one of the most well-known features of Virginia Street. When Harrah’s bought the property, the mural was removed, but the red neon lettering that spelled out “Dedicated in all humility to those who blazed the trail” was left behind. Just two days before the demolition of the building, Durham was removing the other signage and decided to preserve that lettering, as well. He only had a few hours left before the demolition crews were to be on site, and there was no electricity. With a flashlight strapped to his head, he removed all 46, 2 feet by 2 feet letters, taking three down the ladder at once.

“I had to take three at a time—one in each hand and one strapped to my body—so I could get it done in time,” recalls Durham.

He offered the lettering to the City Council to complete the mural, which had been reinstalled at the Reno Livestock Events Center, in exchange for all the original signage from the Mapes. The City Council agreed but, at the time of the exchange, it was discovered that all four of the Mapes cowboys had been stolen. Mysteriously, one reappeared the next day. Two or three years ago, Durham came across a post on Craigslist and realized it was a posting for one of the Mapes signs. The city took it seriously, so Durham set up a meeting with the woman who had posted it, and the city sent officers out. They brought him back one of the cowboys. The whereabouts of the other two signs are still unknown.

“I really do think I’ll get them back one day,” says Durham. “But it’ll be a fight. The two large ones are still missing—but I’m still searching.”

Durham is a little worried that the attention he’s getting for his neon collection will breed competition. But, he believes most people don’t know what they are getting into as far as the size of the signs—the Harold’s Club letters are seven feet in diameter.

“This is more interesting because I have an entire collection,” he says. “All together they have a big impact.”

He has shown some of his collection before at the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles and the Western Folklife Center in Elko. This summer, a set of the Mapes cowboys will be on display in the Nevada Museum of Art lobby. Ultimately, he wants to create a permanent museum out of his collection but needs to find the right space. For now, he’s working on creating a pop-up museum, called The Light Circus Neon Museum. The exhibition was originally going to be presented at The Montage, 255 N. Sierra St., beginning June 1, but it has been delayed. Durham is currently in negotiations with the owners of the building about when, and if, the temporary museum will open. By sharing some of the history of the city in a new light, Durham hopes to have a positive impact.

“I think it would be a good contribution to downtown,” he says. “I want to help out and continue with the momentum that’s happening down there. I love this city.”