As the holiday season ends, busy streets and neighborhoods go dim, with homeowners and business people pulling the plug on their colorful displays.
What’s left to shed some light? A smattering of neon motel signs near downtown Mesa, the vestiges of a 1950s motel cottage industry. It’s worth the drive to see Rose the Diver at Starlite Motel — her animated swan dive ends in a blue neon pool. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the large sign at Buckhorn Hot Mineral Baths — the owners rarely turn it on because the former motel no longer accepts guests. Bright blue, red and green neon stars — reminiscent of Vegas during its Rat Pack prime and now part of hip decor at lounges in Scottsdale — advertise the Hiway Host Motel.
In an area once known as "The Motel Capital of the World," the neon motel sign has played a big part — especially along Main Street in Mesa, where almost every motel has an interesting sign. The colorful and sometimes animated lights are delightfully retro, the buzzword of today’s army of hipsters who listen to Johnny Cash and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Yet the signs receive little fanfare, probably because most flank an unassuming property. Many need to be repaired, but because neon is expensive to replace, owners don’t care if the "M" in "Motel" is out or if a sign’s signature piece fails to light up. And truth be told, out-of-town guests are no longer lured by a bright entrance: They look for consistency, a recognizable name.
"This whole slice of Americana is falling to the wayside," said Douglas Towne of Phoenix.
Towne, 41, has been tracking and admiring neon motel signs since graduate school at the University of Arizona. Amid their frequent travels, Towne and his friends compete to find interesting places to stay — a flamboyant neon motel sign the indicator of a discovery.
"We realized that it’s getting tougher and tougher to find something ingenious," Towne said.
Now on the board of directors of the Society for Commercial Archeology, Towne recently wrote an article, "Frontier Scooters to Flying Saucers: Arizona Motel Imagery," for the SCA. He also sells a poster of neon motel signs at his Web site, www.sem20.com/neonmotel.
Towne hopes that baby boomers’ newfound interest in Americana will breathe life back into the neon motel sign. But for now, he enjoys what remains. Towne’s favorite sign is Rose the Diver.
"I’ve spent the night (at Starlite Motel) and sat out there with a cold beer and watched it," he said. "That is truly one of the most spectacular signs you’ll ever see."