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A Pair of Electric-Sign Restorations

Oklahoma City museum and Sanford, FL venue benefit from makeovers



Time marches on, progress must progress, change is inevitable, et cetera, et cetera. Our memory banks are filled with clichés that affirm the belief that our world constantly evolves, and we must correspondingly adapt.
Point taken.
However, I’d also retort, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going.” Any city, state or other organization that bulldozes its entire history risks leaving its residents or employees without a sense of place that provides a deeper appreciation and understanding.
This is why I’m always heartened to read about historic-sign restorations. If you surveyed the general population (sadly, most decisionmakers don’t), most would probably wish to see a historically significant site – and its signage – returned to their former state of grace, even if the sign(s) must be transported from its original home to preserve.
With this in mind, I’m happy to present a pair of such sign restorations. Oklahoma City-based GS Sign Services refurbished the former neon sign that identified that town’s Taft Stadium, and Tampa-based AMPRO produced the sign program for Sanford’s Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center, which was built in 1923 as the Milane Theater, as part of a massive renovation.
You can’t change the past, but it can inform and enrich your present and future if you’re willing to listen. Take note of the stories these signs tell.

Reliving the roar
Built in 1934 as a Works Progress Administration project under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Oklahoma City’s Taft Stadium served as the host venue to countless high-school football games and stock-car races.
Whether they were passionate cheers of football fans clad in school colors or the high-octane engines of the cars that competed there, roars were the defining sounds emanating from the arena. A double-sided, neon-lit sign identified the facility and conveyed upcoming events. And, because its location at 23rd St. and May Ave. abuts Route 66, the sign enhances the
Mother Road’s historic distinction.
As decades passed, Taft Stadium showed its age. During a late ’90s renovation, the iconic sign was taken down. Leon Wilson, a local sign enthusiast, heard about the sign’s dismantling, and rushed to save it. One side of the sign was beyond repair, but he arranged to save the other half and transported it to his property.
Wilson eventually sold the sign a few years later, and its current owner (who wishes to remain anonymous) contacted Jim Gleason, president of GS Sign Services and vice president of the Billboard Museum Assn., about restoring the sign. Gleason agreed to split the restoration costs with the sign’s owner.
“The sign’s paint was peeling, all the marquee letters needed repainting, the body was rusty and most neon tubing was gone,” Gleason said. “Thankfully, there was just enough exterior neon left to create patterns, and the interior neon tubing was still inside.”
Even transporting the sign from Wilson’s warehouse to GS’ building proved challenging. The sign hadn’t been moved from Wilson’s trailer since he drove it home from the stadium: trees had
grown around it, and the trailer bed and tires had rotted and deflated.
As such, the onus was on the new owner to transport the sign. Gleason bought the trailer, removed the wheels, installed new tires and repaired and removed it.
After transporting the Taft sign back to the shop and disassembling it, GS sandblasted the paint away and replaced the sign’s top and bottom metal sections, as well as most internal baffles. Using 20-gauge sheetmetal, the shop TIG-welded sections together, sanded the surface smooth and applied Akzo Nobel high-gloss coatings. To illuminate the sign, GS enlisted local tubebender Kathy Reynolds to fashion 280 linear ft. of white, green and red 15mm neon that’s powered by 12,000V transformers. All told, the shop logged 225 man-hours repairing the sign. Gleason credits fabricators James and Brian Young, an uncle and his nephew, with handling most of the sign’s production.
Gleason transported the sign to a Memorial Day weekend Route 66 festival in Bethany, OK, where it received a rousing welcome. Eventually, when the Billboard Museum is completed, the Taft Stadium sign will be housed there.
“A big reason we formed the Billboard Museum was to keep local treasures here,” he said. “There’s so much history here with Route 66, and we want to preserve it for future generations.”

Fulfilling the role
In 1923, the Milane Theater, an 823-seat movie theater and performance space, opened in Sanford, FL. Investors Frank and Stella Evans bought the property in 1936 and renamed it the Ritz. It closed in 1978, and the Evans’ heirs sold the property to Ritz Community Theater Projects Inc. during the 1990s. The theater reopened as a performing-arts center in 2000; in 2008, after the Wayne Densch Charitable Trust underwrote another renovation phase, the facility was renamed in his honor.
Three years ago, Steve Nelson, the Center’s treasurer, approached AMPRO’s (Tampa) sign-production team about developing marquee- and flag-mounted signage that evoked the theater opening’s era. AMPRO created the concept drawings, and Nelson began fundraising efforts to bankroll the project.
AMPRO’s work entailed a flag-mounted sign and an elegant main-ID sign that’s flanked by six marquees with LED-bulb borders that simulate incandescent lighting. AMPRO wanted to use the original flag sign’s bolt mounts as an historical touch, but wind-load requirements prevented it. So, the team replaced them with stainless-steel, threaded rods that would support a corner-mounted (16 ft. 9 in.) sign.
The marquees were in poor condition: the lighting was spotty, the faces were damaged and the finish was peeling. AMPRO fabricated new metal parts on its MultiCam 3000 5 x 10-ft. router table, 10-ft. brake press and CLN channel-letter-production machine. The shop fabricated the main-ID sign’s second-surface copy from 3/16-in. white acrylic. Fused-acrylic, changeable-copy tracks convey coming events. Illuminating the signs entailed International Lighting Technologies’ marquee bulbs and power supplies for exposed lighting. To illuminate enclosed areas, AMPRO installed Lumileds’ Luxeon® K2 1 x 3 white-LED modules. Approximately 400 linear ft. of neon was applied for the signs’ borders in white, red, blue, gold and clear tubing, with 9,000 and 12,000V transformers fueling luminous tubing that transports viewers to theater and cinema’s Golden Age.



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