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Making Stars

Old for new lighting

By Staff

There was a time when "electric sign" meant the local theater marquee with hundreds, if not thousands, of cluster bulbs blazing across the night sky announcing the arrival of the latest gangster picture.

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  • Eventually they would later become a bit more complicated as they began to blink in unison. But, simple as they were, these incandescents made "The Great White Way" burn with the intensity of James Cagney shouting, "Top o' the world, Ma!" from an exploding oil rig.

    As technology has grown, however, the novelty of the illuminated sign has dimmed over the years. The bright lights of the big city that once graced only our most stately landmarks can now be found everywhere from the corner gas station to the local laundromat.

    Many manufacturers are rethinking the concept of sign illumination. A new torch has been lit for a very old idea.

    Of course, the idea of electric, and later, of illuminated signs was to allow the customer to see a place of business, period. The question today is how do you distinguish your sign from every other beacon that dots the avenue?

    Although certainly bright enough, most signs "flatten out" at night. Letters and graphics appear to lose the three-dimensional effect that we all strive for, and that is so apparent during the day.

    In order to bring back that larger-than-life quality that seems to be missing in the all-too-familiar internal illumination of today, many in the sign business look toward the movies for inspiration.

    Well, movie theaters--the old, externally-lit ones of the 20's, 30's, and 40's whose "Coming Attractions" leapt off of the golden marquee as boldly as they did off the silver screen.

    There are a few twists, though. Most notably, neon seems to have replaced the clear incandescent. In conjunction with internal illumination, a neon wrap-around can achieve dramatic results. The color options are endless, and neon tubes can be fitted around virtually anything.

    So, it is unlikely that any customers will mistake your place for any other. And, lighting both the inside and the outside of a sign cabinet restores the sense of dimension that often seems to set with the sun. Your graphics will return, along with a certain neo-40's look that even made automats look classy.

    If you want to go for the "old" look with new technology, fiber optics are what will, no doubt, make Broadway "Great" and "White" once again.

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    Although it can be a bit pricey, depending on distance to the light source, fiber optics are easily installed and are just as versatile as neon. The thin nature of the cable allows for even more creative placement. It can be woven into grillwork, or cemented right into brick mortar. It can serve as a traditional wrap-around, or it can even be looped and bent to form a "script" version of the sign.

    Once most businesses--particularly restaurants--devoted most of their time and money to create the right ambiance inside. But the modern-day, Martha-Stewart-watching consumers begin their "shopping experience" as soon as they hit the parking lot.

    That is, both businesses and their clientele are becoming more aware of the allure of curb appeal. Instead of gutting out the insides to achieve a fresher look, many places now invest in landscaping the exterior.

    A big portion of the budget goes toward "lightscaping," as well. Today, lighting is used to put us "in the mood" even before we get our coats off.

    This growing prevalence of exterior light works well with the often larger-than-life--and sometimes over-the-top--signs and logos which have become more popular within the last couple of decades. In addition to glowing golden arches, giant chili peppers and Texas-sized cowboy boots are not uncommon sights along the strip at night. Accordingly, it takes the right light to show them off. More importantly, it takes the right lighting placement.

    Too often lights are placed where they are most convenient, instead of where they will work the best. In the past, this was sometimes unavoidable; technology and local codes hindered where the light would shine. Such hindrances should not cast a shadow on modern product placement, however.

    If the neon or fiber optic options are not available, low-voltage cable and low-voltage halogens will allow for nearly just as much flexibility. Although the transformer may appear unsightly, it can be tucked away behind foliage or other environmental designs.

    The cable is relatively cheap, requires no added exterior insulation, and can be buried just deep enough to conceal it. You can even work with it live to ensure that the fixtures are pointing in the exact location before they are placed into the landscape.

    Newer low-voltage lamps are continuing with the increasingly-popular retro-look. The stem lights which illuminated Lucky Strike and Gulf Oil billboards of yesteryear now guide patrons to countless "old time" sports bars and "shabby chic" seafood restaurants of the new millennium.

    What's more, the blackout effect of stem lights which put the noir in many a film noir classic has been improved. Smaller wide-angle lenses ensure that the whole sign--even the edges are completely visible.

    Although they may be bad for Bogart, they're good for business. The marriage of new technology with old-fashioned lighting techniques will ensure that customers will be "looking at you, kid" well into the future.

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