Shop Talk: West Coast Vintage Neon

Many neon sign companies throughout the U.S. were successfully launched during neon’s heyday, but few can boast consistent business into the twenty-first century. One company that’s still going strong is Fresno Neon Sign Company, founded in the 1930s by John McKenzie as a small neon shop and currently one of the California city’s oldest and most respected sign manufacturers.

 

Back in the ’30s, the business capitalized on the then-growing neon trend sweeping across the country, ultimately becoming the city’s largest sign company. As the shops that lit Times Square saw the peak of neon in the 1950s, so did Fresno Neon as it lit up establishments in San Joaquin valley. “Some of this city’s most memorable signs are part of Fresno Neon’s history,” says K.C. Rutiaga, the company’s vice president who works under her father, President Bill Kratt. “From the enormous Security Bank sign atop the Pacific Southwest Building in downtown Fresno to the original Manchester Center signage with its stunning architectural steelwork and massive neon lights, our company has helped light the way.”

(Note: Additional historic signs in their historic portfolio include the Edmonds Jewelers back-lit neon on the marble facade of the former Fulton Mall location and the original Hotel Fresno canopy sign which shone bright through the 1940s.)

After John McKenzie’s son Don took over the business in 1956, the next thirty years under his management saw the rise of local competition and new directions in signage emerging. In response, Fresno Neon also changed with the times, diversifying to include custom painting, vinyl decoration, and internally illuminated storefront signage. By the 1980s, traditional sign-writing methods such as metal-faces and extensive neon were becoming a thing of the past, but this did not keep the company from remaining at the forefront of the sign industry.

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The shop’s foreman, Bill Kratt, took the reins in 1986, and soon after moved the company from its long-time home in downtown Fresno to a new and modern facility near the Fresno Airport. Today the company manufactures everything from small, lighted storefront letters to vehicle decoration to mammoth internally illuminated freeway signs. “Although neon is no longer a primary part of [our] everyday business, its classic and timeless style still delights both industry leaders and customers alike,” says Rutiaga.

At its Fresno Industrial Park location, the company now has optimal space to work with automated machinery, expand their graphic design capabilities, and operate a large spray booth to facilitate high-quality sign painting. Remaining true to their namesake, Fresno Neon recently added a modern glass plant to increase their neon capabilities.

In addition to working directly with end clients, the company also works with other sign companies that are in need of neon fabrication or repair. A sizeable portion of their work comes from national sign companies that assign their area work on national accounts to Fresno Neon, typically in service and installation. “Having a neon plant on site with same-day turnaround is a huge benefit to our clients,” says Rutiaga.

And they’re not just all about neon. The business has also become quite well known for using LEDs in school marquee signs. So when customers approach the shop, they’re offered a choice of lighting sources for their channel letter projects. “Some customers desire the energy efficiency that LED offers, and we enjoy the fact that LED is faster to install,” says Rutiaga. “But overall, we feel that neon is still a superior choice because of its brighter and more even light output.”

The company’s tradition of working in neon extends to its personnel who take pride in their artistic lineage. “We have a third-generation neon tube bender who operates in-house out of what we would consider a traditional neon shop,” says Rutiaga. “He’s a true artist and professional and can do anything from a standard channel letter neon unit to a highly artistic, custom design.”

(Note: In addition to its in-house neon facility, the company employs many installers, several experienced metal fabricators, a second-generation service technician, and a designer who has spent over twenty-three years exclusively at Fresno Neon.)

Over the years, Rutiaga has watched neon become a nostalgic novelty item to some and a medium to be collected and cherished by others. And with the rise in popularity of television shows such as American Pickers and Pawn Stars, Fresno Neon has seen an increased interest in refurbishing vintage neon. “Every week, customers walk through the door with vintage signs that they’ve purchased from eBay or Amazon and interested in us fixing them up,” says Rutiaga. “With the wide availability of products purchased from the Internet, we also hear from many customers who have ordered a product from the Web that is promoted as real neon, but in reality is just painted glass.

“Unfortunately many of these products don’t arrive in one piece and repairing painted glass can be a difficult task.”

Most of the company’s neon production revolves around channel letter illumination, with some fabrication of custom neon signs for interior use, as well as exposed neon for exterior signage. Neon continues to be requested by a diverse client base in Fresno, but its greatest popularity is within the restaurant and retail industries. “It appears the nostalgic look of exposed neon is coming back into vogue,” says Rutiaga.

For more Fresno Neon projects, be sure to check out the July 2013 issue of Sign Builder Illustrated magazine.

—Lori Shridhare


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