PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — If you grew up in the 1950s or ’60s, you may recall a different image of Philadelphia: streets lined with mom-and-pop stores that were all lit up with neon signs.
That was Len Davidson’s childhood in Northeast Philly. He grew up a block away from Bustleton Avenue, one of many neighborhood shopping streets in the city. He created the Neon Museum of Philadelphia to preserve that time in history.
“I’m really looking at this museum as a piece of Philadelphia history,” Davidson said. “Philadelphia is very invested in its colonial history, Revolutionary War history, but this is the history of Philadelphia in the 1950s, in mid-century.”
Davidson has been collecting and preserving neon signs for more than 40 years. He was initially drawn to the craftsmanship — he makes neon signs and art himself — but as he started to learn the history of the signs, he felt compelled to tell the stories behind them.
One of the first signs that inspired him to start the museum was from Levis Hot Dogs, which used to be on Sixth Street. The restaurant sold hot dogs, fish cakes and hand-mixed sodas. A big hot dog-shaped neon sign could be seen from blocks away.
When the business closed, Davidson bought the sign from an architectural salvage center. The exterior has since become “a plain vanilla building,” as he calls it.
“That story about the loss of mom-and-pop local flavor businesses is a story that keeps getting repeated over and over again in Philadelphia,” Davidson lamented.
He estimated about 75% of the museum’s signs are from Philadelphia businesses, many of which have closed. Davidson has signs from the Chez Vous Room roller skating rink, Horn & Hardart Retail Shop, The Katz Meow theater, and a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, to name a few.
Davidson is in the process of restoring a giant neon crown, which used to stand over Pat’s Steaks in Strawberry Mansion.
“That sign had 39 neon tubes on it,” he said. “I’m told by people who saw the sign in the 1950s and ’60s that if you flew over Philadelphia and the sign was lit, you could see it from airplanes.”
The museum reflects 1950s Philadelphia in ways beyond the signs. There are bulletin boards on the walls where people can post their own memories of the signs, plus books and videos about the era.
In the middle of the floor, Davidson set up a mat for deadbox — a game that kids used to play in the street with bottle caps, outlined in chalk.
Deadbox is one way that the museum engages younger people who may not have memories of the signs. Davidson hopes he can teach new generations about the past so it won’t be forgotten.
“I would hope that they would learn a bit about what cities were like,” he said. “Not just Philadelphia, but what cities were like in general during the 20th century — before so much got moved to the internet, before the death of the mom-and-pop stores.”
These days, LED lighting is much cheaper and easier to make, but there are still some artists who make creative pieces with neon.
Davidson also displays his and other artists’ work in the museum. Two of the most notable pieces are gnomes he made — but they don’t look like traditional garden gnomes. Gnome-making is a style of art that Davidson learned in the Midwest, though the tradition started in Europe. His gnomes are made with neon tubes and found objects, like toys and beads, arranged around tree trunks.
Now that he finally has a space, Davidson wants to establish a strong foundation for the museum so it can live on beyond him. He’s looking for an executive director who can take the museum to the next level.
“The next step for the museum is really becoming a museum that’s got an active board of directors that can get funding, that can get grants, that can do fundraising, that can have someone who can replace me as the person who’s running the museum,” he added.