N E W  Y O R K E R S  &  C O
Wizards of Neon Make Their Mark on Broadway
Their Blend of Skills Includes Those of Glass Blowers, Electricians, Chemists and Graphic Artists
EON is everywhere in the new Broadway production of "Satur- day Night Fever." It lights the 42 brightly colored square panels of
the 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.

Altogether, 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, is one 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 people realize 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 was made 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 "Pizza," "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 tube light," 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 because neon 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."

    Mr. Greenberg has crafted neon 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 tail).

    Mr. Greenberg has also created 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

Kenny Greenberg - Neon Wizard
Kenny Greenberg is an artist in neon. His work appears in the panels of the onstage dance floor in "Saturday Night Fever," below.


Bright Lights For a Big City
The steps in making neon signs or decorations

o The worker bends the glass tubes into 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 variety of 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 green.

Saturday Night Fever

"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 said.

   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, the owner.

   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 it."   

   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 her body."

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 customer,
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.

Miss Saigon
Bangkok Nightlife from
Broadway Production of "Miss Saigon"

Stallion Fields
Stallion Fields from
"Best Whorehouse Goes Public"

Floating Neon Piano from
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