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Veteran Ad Men Plan Bright Future For Kansas City's Old Neon Signs

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
After 50 years of beckoning drivers on 350 Highway, the Fun House Pizza and Pub sign came down in April. It’s going into storage with 15 other signs for eventual display in the Lumi Neon Museum.";

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."


Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Dark for now, an 11-foot star floated through the morning air, just beyond the reach of a worker from Infinity Sign Systems who was dismantling the Fun House Pizza sign.

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.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Photographer Nick Vedros took a moment to snap a photograph of Fun House Pizza and Pub owners Anna Graham and her husband Gary.

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.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Crick Camera Shop's sign was headed for the dump when the store closed last year. Vedros saved it and launched an effort to collect other vintage neon signs.

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.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Randy Steinmetz, of Steinmetz Neon, works over an open flame to fuse two pieces of glass as he restores a vintage sign.

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.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Steinmetz repairs the Turner Music Company sign, one he rescued several years back. He plans to donate the sign to the new museum.

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.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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