|By RICHARD WEIR
is everywhere in the new Broadway production of "Satur- day Night
Fever." It lights the 42 brightly colored square panels of
onstage dance floor. It trims the struc ture that holds the disco ball.
And it illuminates 20 street signs, like the one for Fusco's Paint
Store, where Tony Manero, the lead character, works.
there is almost a mile of neon tubing on
the Minskoff Theater stage. And much of it was produced in a cramped,
oneman shop in Queens not much bigger than a storefront luncheonette,
which it was until 20 years ago.
The store, Krypton Neon,
of only a handful of businesses that construct many of the high-end,
customized neon creations seen on Broadway, in movies and in television
shows filmed in New York, as well as in many of the city's popular
restaurants and stores. These specialty shops range from Krypton Neon,
a tiny work space in Long Island City, to Midtown Neon, founded in 1947
and one of the city's oldest neon enterprises, which occupies a
20,000-square-foot building on the West Side of Manhattan.
Although these singular displays are highly visible, few
that they are made by artisans who blend the skills of glass blower,
electrician, chemist and graphic artist in their work.
"I was not aware that neon
by human beings," Kenny Greenberg,
Krypton's owner and sole employee, said of the time before he abandoned
his career as a child psychologist in 1980 to study neon tubebending.
"I had seen a gazillion neon signs and always assumed they were made in
some light-bulb factory."
Unlike the 100 or so local shops that churn out the simple
"Chinese" and "Open 24 Hours" signs that light up shops throughout New
York, these high-end enterprises design and install large-scale
productions with complex circuits of high-voltage transformers,
conduits and support tubes. Some of their signs have special effects,
like "animated" figures.
The works tend to be of high quality. "Anybody can make a
said David Ablon, an instructor in neon at Urban Glass, a workshop in
Brooklyn. "But to make it light properly, free of staining and able to
reach its appropriate life span, which can reach up to 30 years of
constant burning, takes a different level of skill."
That technical knowledge, Mr. Ablon said, is in demand now
is architecturally fashionable, lighting the sides of buildings and the
interiors of stores and restaurants. This high-end skill is always
important on Broadway. because if neon props are not made correctly,
their humming or buzzing can interfere with the radio-controlled
microphones used by the cast.
"Sound designers, as soon as they hear there is neon on
the show, they
go, 'I don't like that, " said David
Rosenfeld, who heads the
electrical department of Hudson
Scenic Studio, which huilds stage sets.
That is why, he said, his company turned to Mr. Greenberg for the neon work in
"Saturday Night Fever."
for dozens of musicals, including "Miss Saigon" (signs for the Moulin
Rouge and other honky-tonks); "Victor/Victoria " (a glass piano on
which Julie Andrews sat), and "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public"
(the towering "Stallion Fields" brothel sign with its moving horse
a neon peacock for NBC Television and lighting for CBS's new morning
program, "The Early Show." In films, he made the store signs in
Greenberg is an artist in neon. His work appears in the panels
onstage dance floor in "Saturday Night Fever," below.
Bright Lights For a Big
The steps in making neon signs or decorations
o The worker bends the glass tubes
letters or other shapes as they are heated over a flame He or she then
blows air into the tubes to preserve their structure.
o The tubes are heated to about 450 degrees, freeing up air molecules
inside the glass. A vacuum pump then sucks
|out all the
air in the tube.
o The tubes are filled with a
inert gases that help determine their color. When a tube is lit. pure
neon gives off a red light. Argon-mercury glows blue.
o The inside of the tube has been coated by the manufacturer with
various phosphor powders. Combined with the color of the glass and the
inert gases, these powders offer workers a pallete of up to 70 colors,
from the most popular, ruby red, to special hues, like traffic-light
"Men in Black" and,
for "Six Degrees of separation,"
a theater marquee and a giant roller-skate that was seen only briefly
in the reflection of a glass phone booth.
"When I do Broadway, the neon is much more blatant" he
Mr. Greenberg is not the only neon tubebender catering to
the entertainment industry, which pays between $15 and $40 a foot for
neon projects. Let There Re Neon, a sign shop
in TriBeCa founded by the neon pop artist Rudi Stern, has done work fur
"Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," said Jeff Friedman,
Mr. Friedman's company also made a blue neon sign that
hung in the center of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum during a recent
exhibition on motorcycles. And it rents its stock of standard neon
signs - "Bar," "Motel," "Donuts," - as props for "N.Y.P.D. Blue," "New
York Undercover" and other television series.
"We do all the neon for 'The Sopranos,' ' said Phil
Hazard, an executive of the company, referring to the popular HBO
series. "They use a lot of 'Espresso' signs."
Pat Tomasso, the owner of Manhattan Neon, said his company
had produced neon
works for "Crazy for You" and "Jelly's
Last Jam." Several years ago, the firm
created 28-foot neon palm trees for the
Grammy Awards, he said, and it recently made a giant
signature of Marc Anthony, the salsa
singer, in "hot pink and blue" for a CD cover.
Sometimes the creation's purpose is a
mystery. Rita Miller, who owns Midtown Neon with her nushand,
Fred, said they had recently been asked to fashion a
three-foot, off-white neon tooth for the r remake of
the movie "Shaft."
"Whatever that's for I don't know," said Ms. Miller, whose
company has made neon props for "Radio
Days" and several other Woody Allen films. "They just come in and order
Her clients, she said, range from Lincoln Center to a
sideshow performer in Atlantic City. "We did a neon sword for her," Ms.
Miller said. "We thought it was a decoration, but she actually does
swallow it." The performer sheathes the object in a clear balloon
to protect her throat in case the glass tubes break.
"She says she's the only sword swallower in the
world who swallows a neon sword."
Ms. Miller said. "You can actually see the luminescence coming through
Mr. Tomasso's company, too. has con
structed a striking work: the notorious 15
foot blond topless dancer on the marquee of the Playpen m Times Square.
"It's been pictured in newspapers all
the world." he said. (Mayor Giuliani's campaign against sex businesses
can help the trade. too. Some strip clubs have
asked neon shops to change their signs to "sTopless.")
In a more elegant vein, Mr. Tomasso
been lured to adorn the windows of the
Versace boutique on Fifth Avenue and a 21story expanse on the facade of
the Louis Vuitton building on East 57th Street.
Mr. Greenberg, who
recently created an
animated sign of a sprinting waitress carrying
a platter with a steaming turkey for the Comfort Diner on Lexington
Avenue, is glad to be in the high-end, one-of-a-kind part of the neon
industry. Although he occasionally repairs a "Gyros" sign for an old
his days of making everyday neon are over.
Referring to the neon advertisement that
is now de rigueur for manicurists, he said: "I was lucky. I was done
with that work before 'Nails' came along.
Bangkok Nightlife from
Broadway Production of "Miss Saigon"
Stallion Fields from
"Best Whorehouse Goes Public"
Floating Neon Piano from