Electrifying exhibits illuminate history of neon advertising
The Arizona Republic — November 24, 2019
THE DALLES, Oregon – David Benko is to neon signs what Jeff Bezos is to online shopping.
Benko, 53, one of the preeminent American experts on the history and craftsmanship of neon advertising signs, has amassed an electrifying collection of the glowing and eye-catching relics from the country’s past and assembled them in a recently opened museum that makes a fun and family-friendly stop for visitors to the Pacific Northwest.
The National Neon Sign Museum is located in a historic building in downtown The Dalles, Oregon (rhymes with “the gals”), a town of about 16,000 residents on the Columbia River about a 90-minute drive east of Portland, Oregon.
The three-story, colonial-style brick building, formerly an Elks Temple, was built in 1910. Benko bought the vacant building from the city for $1, with the promise that he would restore it, bring it to life with his dazzling collection, and ultimately, attract tourists to The Dalles. It opened for visitors in late 2018.
Inside, there is more than 20,000 square feet of space that houses neon signs from Benko’s personal collection. He owns more than 300 signs; dozens of his favorites are currently on display.
The museum also features interactive displays explaining the history and technology behind the advertising signs that were such an iconic staple of the American urban landscape from the Great Depression through the 1970s. That’s when the popularity of neon started to fade due to rising energy costs. Benko says the lights have recently seen a resurgence of popularity, partly due to television programs that spotlight old-style diners and other buildings with neon signage.
Benko, who admits a lifelong fascination with “decrepit relics,” acquired his first neon sign at the age of 15 when he was living in the Seattle area. It was a simple marker reading “café” that was about to be hauled away to the dump. He took it home and has been hooked on neon ever since.
“There’s something magical about neon that just draws you,” he says. “It’s very magnetic.”
Benko built his expertise working at sign museums in Ohio and Washington. He also owns a thriving neon sign business based in Vancouver, Washington.
The museum in The Dalles has displays from old gas stations, ice-cream shops, burger joints, car dealerships and a Coca-Cola sign from the 1930s.
The second-floor is set-up to resemble a city street in the 1950s. In fact, one of the signs – from a frozen custard shop – was used as inspiration for the set designers of the sit-com “Happy Days,” which was set in 1950s Milwaukee.
Earlier this year, Benko went to France to acquire one of the most historically significant inventions in the field – the first neon-gas light tube. Invented by Georges Claude, an engineer and chemist known as the “French Thomas Edison,” the neon tube was first displayed to the public in Paris in 1910 and then patented in the United States in 1915.
Benko proudly displays Claude’s landmark invention in the museum’s bottom floor along with other educational displays explaining the evolution of electric light, from the earliest light-bulb signs to the introduction of neon signs in the U.S. in 1923 by Claude’s company.
Unlike the larger Neon Museum in Las Vegas, the signs in Benko’s museum haven’t been restored or touched up, which he believes adds to their authenticity.
“I live with the condition they’re in or I don’t buy them,” he says.
About 80 percent of the nonprofit museum’s visitors arrive in The Dalles on riverboats cruising the Columbia. We visited the ship while traveling on the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress, which was docked just a five-minute walk from the museum. The Empress has an arrangement with the museum; passengers are given free entrance (normally $10 for adults).
Benko is always on the lookout for new items to add to the museum’s extensive collection, even if it means going overseas. He personally conducts some of the guided tours in the museum, and glows with enthusiasm as he shares with patrons his love of brightly colored advertising signs and nostalgia from a much simpler time.
“People miss things after they disappear,” he says. “And then, of course, everyone wants them to come back.”
© 2019 Dan Fellner