Veteran Ad Men Plan Bright Future For Kansas City's Old Neon Signs
For more than half a century, the huge star on top of a neon sign above Fun House Pizza and Pub served as a glowing beacon to cars passing by on 350 Highway in Raytown. But one morning in April, a crane took it down.
The sign had been mostly dark since last December when owner Gary Graham served his last pizza.
“This is our family restaurant," said Graham. "My mother and father started it back in 1964. We had a long good run here, but I’ve decided I’m going to retire.”
When a business closes, old signs often end up in the landfill. But this sign will have a second life. It’s going into storage for a project Nick Vedros and Curtis Shaddox, two veterans of Kansas City's advertising business, have been dreaming about for a while: a neon museum.
“Kansas City has been known for its neon," said Shaddox. "It’s just lucky that Nick started this up and we’re being able to save some of it because so much of it is already gone."
Shaddox is retired now, but after spending more than three decades building signs, he knows a lot about them.
"We keep digging in and finding little treasures here and there and that’s the beauty of it,” he said.
So far, they’ve saved 16 old neon signs and are looking for more.
Vedros works as a photographer for corporate clients such as Apple, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. He said he’s always been attracted to vintage advertising.
“There’s something magical about neon. It, of course, glows at night. You can see it half a mile away and it just draws you in like a moth to the light.”
Vedros said he hadn’t given neon too much thought until last year, when Crick Camera Shop on State Line was closing after 70 years in business. The sign, built in 1946, was headed for the dump.
“Back when I was 16 years old, I bought my first camera at Crick’s," said Vedros. "So I’ll never forget Crick’s. And so I definitely wanted to rescue this sign.”
Vedros said he started to notice there were other signs around town that needed to be saved. Other cities, such as Las Vegas and Cincinnati, had neon museums, and he thought Kansas City should have one too.
The signs they've been finding have spent years exposed to the extremes of Midwestern weather.
“Some of them are in good shape and they work," said Vedros. "Others don’t have a piece of glass on them.”
That is where someone like Randy Steinmetz can help. Steinmetz, who works out of an old storefront at 18th and Troost, is one of the few old-school neon benders left in Kansas City.
Ten years ago, Steinmetz said, most old signs ended up in the trash.
“I hate to think how many I’ve seen just scrapped," said Steinmetz. "Now people are learning that these have some worth. We’re nostalgic, so they’re being restored.”
Recently, Steinmetz was working on a sign for Turner Music Company in Independence, Missouri. He rescued it a few years back and plans to donate to the museum when Vedros and Shaddox get it up and running.
"Apparently, it was there for years and years," Steinmetz said of the Turner Music sign. "It was taken down and a new sign was put up and I was afraid that it was going to be destroyed, so that’s when I snagged it.”
These sign rescuers have to be ready to move quickly, but Vedros said sometimes that isn't even enough. Removing large and heavy signs without damaging them is difficult and costly. Vedros has enlisted professional help from companies like Infinity Sign Systems with the toughest jobs.
“Timing’s a challenge," he said. "The elements are a challenge. Sometimes when we’re ready to move one, it starts to rain that day and we have to get the whole crew to switch gears.”
And every sign looks smaller when it's up in the air.
“When you get that Funhouse Pizza sign down to the ground, my God, you’re standing next to it and go, 'Wow, this thing’s a lot bigger than I thought.' I’m always amazed at how much bigger it is in real life.”
Vedros said he only has one regret.
“I wish that I had started doing this 20 years earlier. Then I would have had a lot more selection. But we’ve got some great signs already and we feel like we’re going to get more.”
Vedros and Shaddox still haven’t found the right building, so it might be a while before they can open what they’ve officially named the Lumi Neon Museum. But for all of these iconic Kansas City signs, the future looks bright.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.