NEON: Darkness Electrified

aimee suzanne kruse-ross | the neville now | sept. 2017

Now through January 7, 2018, NEON: Darkness Electrified runs at the Neville Public Museum. The exhibit represents more than 30 years of collecting and restoration that demonstrates the history of glowing, colorful artifacts of Main Street Americana that is quickly fading. With equal parts history, art and education, NEON represents an era when nighttime skylines were lit with colorful, gas-filled tubes, emitting a welcoming glow, hawking their various services and wares. Be it restaurants, hotels, products or entertainment, this exhibit brings back the nostalgia of the blinking and the occasional electrical cracking of off-again, on-again, lights.

Inspired by an exhibit in Appleton, the Neville curator, Lisa Kain, set the wheels in motion to bring the exhibit to Green Bay.

“I saw the exhibit as a great way to bridge the science, art and history of neon," says Kain. “The signs in this exhibit come from, not just Wisconsin, but all parts of the country. There's a mix of everything."

When the exhibit was first displayed in Appleton, it included about 30 signs. An additional 12 have been added to the Green Bay exhibit.

The roughly 40 original signs in NEON are part of the private collection of Jed Schleisner of Greenville, Wisconsin. He has worked decades, gathering these historic pieces of Americana and restoring them back to working order.

“The exhibit really represents about one-third of my actual collection," says Schleisner. “I loved collecting the signs that weren't as popular; the motels, the liquors, radios, mom-and-pops, things typical of Main Street, USA."

This exhibit showcases the finest of his collection and includes signage both familiar and oft forgotten. In the case of the former are brands Ford Tractor, John Deere and Hamm's Beer. As for the latter is signage for Philco Radio Service, Admiral Radios & Refrigerators and Dog N Suds.

The exhibit also features some highly collectible and rare signs including a fully restored Mobil Pegasus neon, one of fewer than 10 such signs remain in the US. The collection also boasts Reddy Kilowatt, a fictional character created in the 1930s to help teach consumers how to understand and use electricity. Also a rarity is signage for Chicken in the Rough. In 1936, Chicken in the Rough was one of America's first fast food restaurants. Their mascot, a 5-foot-tall animated chicken swinging a golf club, has been restored back to its colorful and animated perfection.

Other signs in NEON may elicit a nostalgic response with Green Bay residents. According to Kain, the exhibit's Hochgreve Beer sign has become a favorite with visitors. Another example of the area's brewing heritage is on display in the form of a rare Rahr's Elk's Head Beer neon. Many will recall the Rahr's Brewery as the first brewery to locate within Green Bay city limits. Rahr's was also Green Bay's longest running brewery.

That sign came to Schleisner with the help of some famous collectors: Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, the stars of “American Pickers."

“Jed's been collecting and fixing neon for years, but what amazes me the most is that he understands, not just the science of it, but also, fundamentally, he's an artist," says the museum's Executive Director, Beth Lemke. “He has brought so many of these signs to life."

“Neon resonates with all generations. These signs take us back to a time in our history; they are parts of our own stories. It's all about nostalgia."

Indeed, NEON: Darkness Electrified has something for the entire family.

Visit NEON: Darkness Electrified now through January 7, 2018. For more information, please visit nevillepublicmuseum.org.

Stay up-to-date

Sign up for a monthly digest of everything new in GB.