This year, the Tower Theatre in Fresno turns 80 years old. The theatre’s iconic marquee and tower have flashed fluorescent pink and purple since it opened in 1939.
“The Memorial Auditorium was built then, and so the Tower Theatre was really the very last of those big, glorious, neon-lit theaters,” says Elizabeth Laval, President of the Fresno Historical Society.
She says one of the theatre’s developers was A. Emory Wishon, who worked for the utility company San Joaquin Light and Power.
“Of course they wanted to show off their electric and power,” says Laval. “That's why that 80-foot star tower was erected there.”
What makes that star tower so flashy is the neon: Bright stripes of color are illuminated at night, lining the tower.
Today, the theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique architecture, designed by S. Charles Lee, and the fact that it had a parking lot, a rarity for its time. The designation means as long as the theatre remains, the neon has to stay.
“I think the biggest risk to any of our historic sites could be a lack of people caring,” Laval says. “But the maintenance costs of some of these old buildings is very prohibitive for a lot of people.”
Maintaining the neon marquee is becoming more and more difficult as fewer and fewer companies offer such specialized work. The fluorescent gas used to light all types of signs, from backlighting to brightly lit accents. But if you pay attention, you’ll see fewer and fewer signs sporting the fluorescent lights.
“The neon bending and all that is becoming a lost trade,” says Santiago Bustamante, who works for the Fresno Neon Sign Company.
His employer is one company that still offers in-house neon repairs.
His job as a sign installer is to maintain the hundreds of neon tubes that light up the Tower Theatre.
“Right now, we’re working on the tower ball, the tower itself,” says Bustamante. He’s referring to the sphere at the top of the theatre’s 80-foot tower, which is surrounded by flashing neon accents.
The marquee, too is lit by hundreds of neon glass tubes, bent to spell the word “Tower” in cursive and to hug the rounded edge of the overhang. But despite the longevity of neon, the tubes can still be broken by birds or the weather.
“We’re pretty much rewiring the whole thing,” Bustamante says. “By the time we're done, our goal is to have it a hundred percent lit.”
The tubes themselves are molded and bent at the company’s warehouse in southeast Fresno. You’ll know it by its own neon sign.
Along one wall of the warehouse are boxes of phosphor coated glass, a humming vacuum, and burners producing blue flames. That’s where Daniel Hood bends glass tubes to replace broken ones.
Hood believes he’s the only neon tube-bender in the San Joaquin Valley. He’s brightened signs up and down Highway 99.
“I got my thumbprint all around the whole Valley,” he laughs. He often recognizes his work, and that of his relatives.
He’s a third-generation neon tube bender, and his father taught him how to take the four foot glass tubes that neon signs are comprised of and shape them with fire. In his work space, he lays a white, bent tube next to another that’s plugged in, glowing bright pink.
“This unit right here is for the Tower Theatre, because as you can see, it’s just not flat,” says
Hood. His work for the Theatre is some of his most difficult because the marquee has so many dimensions and curves.
When Hood bends glass, he starts by heating a four-foot length of tube. He moves it back and forth between one of the flames. Before even a minute has passed, the glass is on fire, which is what he wants. He brings it out of the flame, and bends it into a loop.
He does this all with his bare hands.
“It takes years of practice,” says Hood. “It's very light. A little slip can ruin the bend.”
The technique required to bend glass, neon in particular, can take years to perfect, which makes it hard to recruit and train new tube benders.
“That's one of the biggest problems in our industry, the lack of tube benders,” Hood says. “There's just no way to service it and that's why a lot of people went away from it.”
Most businesses now use LED modules to light their signs. Even the Fresno Neon Sign Company deals outside of neon; part of their business includes building digital marquees and cutting letters for signs that will be backlit with LEDs.
KC Rutiaga, president of the Fresno Neon Sign Company, would like to keep the work that is the company’s namesake going.
“I think they [the signs] represent history, you know, the history of the Valley,” says Rutiaga. “There are so many signs that Fresno Neon built and maintained over the years, going back to the 30s.”
Her father, Bill Kratt, ran the company before her, and he started out at the company as a sign installer. She remembers going out with him to see the signs he worked on.
“He would be so proud of the things that he built that on the weekends, instead of going out to dinner or doing something like that as a family, we would go out and drive around and he would show what he built,” Rutiaga says. “We all got to see it lit up.”
But some of those signs too, she says, have been updated. Still, she’s hoping the company doesn’t
lose their neon niche.
“I think neon signs just pop,” she says. “You see them from really far away and they catch your eye; the more color the better. I just think that compared to the signs of today, they're just more exciting.”
With its designation on the National Register of Historic Places, the Tower Theatre’s marquee and tower remain exciting. That sign, Rutiaga hopes, will always stay neon.