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Neon At It's Best

Neon is still in full use today-- even restoring a piece of history

By Johnny R. Duncan

To be a part of history has to be thrilling. To be a part of restoring history, well… that must really knock the socks off. Meet Haley Ryane. You may or may not recognize the name, but maybe her business, Savage Neon. Her business is teaching others how to do what she loves doing: creating masterpieces through neon.

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  • Haley Ryane has been teaching the craft of neon tube bending since 1988. In that time, she has seen many projects transformed through her creative use of neon.

    Brief Neon History Lesson We see it all around us, but what actually goes into the process of neon lighting? Let’s just review a little bit of the development of neon lighting as a foundation for this article.

    Neon, the gaseous chemical element, was discovered in 1898 by William Ramsay and M. W. Travers. Neon is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. It is one of the inert gases and it does not form compounds in the normal chemical sense. A small amount of neon in a partially evacuated glass tube emits a bright reddish-orange glow while conducting electricity. Neon is a rare gas present in the atmosphere to a very limited extent. It is obtained as a byproduct in the production of liquid air.


    Georges Claude, a French inventor introduced neon, the light, in 1910. The making of neon has changed little since then. The idea behind a neon light is simple. Inside the glass tube there is a gas like neon, argon or krypton at low pressure. At both ends of the tube there are metal electrodes. When you apply a high voltage (up to 18,000 volts) to the electrodes, the neon gas ionizes and electrons flow through the gas. These electrons excite the neon atoms and cause them to emit light that we can see. Neon emits red light when energized in this way. Other gases emit other colors. Colors like greens and pinks are created using one of the two colored gases and different phosphorus coatings.

    The Port Theatre Once the techniques of neon are learned, the applications are endless and profitable.

    One of the many projects Haley Ryane has worked on is the Port Theatre in Port St. Joe, Florida. The theatre, now Wade Clark Auctions, is over 60 years old. It was built in the late 1930's. Transforming into a community center, auditorium and booming business, the old Port Theatre was immensely popular with Port St. Joe residents. "Each Saturday," remembers Billy Howell, former projectionist at the Port Theatre, "you had a double feature, a serial, and a cartoon, and it (the theatre) would be full."

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    The Port Theatre, part of the Martin Theatre chain, was a first-class operation. The 7,000 sq. ft. building was suited to virtually every need imaginable. An elevated back entrance allowed trucks to back up directly to the stage and more easily transfer equipment. There was even a special smoking section, walled off, behind the seating area with a window where smokers could still watch the show. Most importantly, the stage inside was tremendous. It had many red velvet curtains and was perfect for performances. There were two dressing rooms and three floors going up the side of the stage for controlling the backdrops for plays and raising and lowering the projector screen for movies.

    Wade and Paula Clark, the owners, bought the building in 1990, gutted all the rotten wood because the roof had partially blown off in a hurricane 30 years ago. They removed 150 tons of debris. The marquee is the last major restoration project. “The neon had some black block-out glass in it”, recalls Rayne. “Some of the original neon worked but the wires were broken off of the electrodes. They need to paint the marquee lettering, then install new transformers, wiring then all the tubing. They found me on the Internet and traded my services for neon equipment they had bought from the Sign Company who was going to do the job. The guy got cancer and closed shop, selling his equipment to them. Needless to say, they had little instruction on bending and got discouraged after a day in the fires and put the project on the back burner for 2 years.”


    In the May 3rd, 2001 edition of The Star’s article entitled A Comet Burst of Progress Brings Light to the Port Theatre, Paula Clark writes, “We found her on the Internet. One day of working with the equipment was enough to convince Wade [my husband] that he wanted an expert for the job (or needed training). We researched schooling a little bit and decided it was not an option for us due to our current schedules (sometimes 50+ hour weeks). We were impressed with Haley Ryane’s credentials and called on her to help us.”

    Haley was immediately bending glass. She worked fairly long hours all week sometimes starting at 7:30 a.m. and working until after 10 p.m. It wasn’t long before the first load (6 individual signs that included the letters to spell THEAT of THEATRE) was ready to take to Panama City to get them bombarded. “When we took Haley's glass letters to Panama City, they drew admiration for their precision and quality. I had felt peace all along about our decision to work together, but it was great confirmation to hear someone in the business affirm her excellence in ability. I thought, looking at her finished work, her glass bending looked precise, clean and neat.”

    Saving The Past “She gave of her time to re-light our town so that she could bring the equipment home to a friend who would use it in the basement for home neon hobby bending. I think she also liked the idea of being involved in our project. She spends most of her time teaching and doesn't have time to involve herself in larger projects very often.”

    “There's something incredibly satisfying to bringing a piece of history back. I can imagine the building in its glory years past.” Clark states. “I can picture the pleasure it brought to families. I can see the happy faces, hear the laughter, and even feel the tears. I know buildings are not people. Yet, the lives of the people who stood within these walls have given the old bricks a feeling of life to my eyes. History is a nebulous traveler that visits unexpectedly. A sweet memory awakens brain cells that have been dormant, simply holding a moment in time. To have experienced this time in the Port Theatre's history has made Haley a part of Port St. Joe now too. Her gift to us is one that will live on in the lives of our children and grandchildren. We can look up and remember. Haley visited us briefly, just like the comet. Yet, her bright light will live on in the PORT THEATRE.

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