If it’s nighttime in Boston, neon signs are a sure source of beauty and light. Who can imagine the city without its Paramount Theatre marquee? Or the Boston Wharf Company banner, bathing the streetscape with its molten glow?
Though the signs appear steadfast, the artisans at Somerville’s Neon Williams — one of the last neon sign shops in New England — are devoted to preserving these dazzling displays in the Boston area.
“If it’s a neon sign, and it’s around here, it’s probably made by us,” said Dave Waller, who co-owns Neon Williams with his wife, Lynn.
In addition to servicing Boston’s surviving signs, Neon Williams also bends tubes for the new ones that crop up. Business has dimmed considerably since the shop’s 20th-century heyday; at one point, icons including the Citgo sign, the Shell “Spectacular,” and the North End’s Regina Pizzeria marquee were lit with the shop’s handiwork. Now, all three run on LED lighting.
Despite the darkness of the pandemic — “we thought we were going to close,” Dave Waller said — this past June was the busiest month since the Wallers took over the shop in 2019. As people cleared out their attics, Neon Williams found itself swamped with repair jobs. Restaurants, including Donut Villa Diner in Central Square and Vera’s in Somerville, spruced up with new signs as they anticipated the return of customers. A whopping 13 neon signs bent in the shop can be spotted in the new film “Free Guy,” which filmed in Massachusetts.
Neon’s timeless appeal was much of the reason for the Wallers taking over the shop. Waller remembers picking up a repair from Neon Williams in 2018 when one of the previous owners broke news of their plans to shutter the business. The owners offered to sell Waller their inventory, but he had a different idea.
“I saw two people bringing in neon signs to be repaired, and I thought to myself, ‘This is a going business,’” said Waller, who lives in Malden. “There’s a well-worn path to the door — maybe we can try to do something with it.”
That well-worn path began in 1934 when Wally Croft opened the “Long Life Neon Tubes” company, which transformed into C.M. Williams & Sons in the 1960s when it changed hands to Charlie Williams. When his sons, Dana and Steven, took over in the ‘80s, it became Neon Williams.
“It’s really been a family business,” said Waller, who took it upon himself to preserve the shop’s history on its website, through interviews with the Williams brothers and Grace Williams, Steven’s wife and the former business manager of the company. “Even though it’s been three different families.”
The shop bounced from location to location before finally landing in Somerville. In the 1980s, Neon Williams had 17 full-time employees. Today, it’s down to just the Wallers and glass benders Nick McKnight and Tony Dowers.
Neon began painting Boston red (and purple and green) in the 1920s, when the new advertising medium blazed its way to America from France. In neon’s golden era, rhapsodies in ruby red and ocean blue beckoned atop buildings from downtown to Roxbury.
“Back in the day, if you didn’t have a neon sign, you didn’t have a business,” Waller said. “We have neon signs from funeral parlors to police stations to courthouses.”
Creating the signs is no easy feat. Glass bending, the painstaking process of creating the bespoke signs, is an art form as mesmerizing as the finished product. McKnight and Dowers, the shop’s glass benders, closely follow design patterns made by Dowers and Lynn Waller, holding slender glass tubes — in a variety of colors and sizes — over concentrated flames. The sign’s final color, they say, depends on the combination of the tube’s color and the gases. Neon has a natural crimson glow, while argon (with a drop of mercury) casts a steely blue.
“What’s happening inside the tube is a phenomenon,” said Waller, who also owns the digital production studio Brickyard in Boston. “It’s lightning, essentially.”
It’s an art that takes years to learn but results in a sign that can stay lit nonstop for eight to 15 years, according to McKnight.
“If you had a time machine and you could bring somebody from the 1920s,” Waller said, “they could just walk into the shop and start making neon. Not much has changed . . . they kind of got it right the first time.”
While the craft itself hasn’t changed much, neon’s reputation has undergone radical transformations over the decades. Its appeal faded in the latter half of the 20th century, especially after the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 led to widespread anti-neon edicts. Even now, neon signs are heavily regulated in certain areas of Boston.
Neon also became associated with a certain, ahem, tawdry business. In the Combat Zone, the name given in the 1960s to Boston’s adult entertainment district, a place called Club 66 flaunted the neon silhouette of a naked woman in the 1970s.
Neon partially overcame this notoriety in the mid-1970s and ’80s as artists worked to reclaim the craft. At that point, Neon Williams was churning out more than 100 signs a week, according to a 1985 Globe article.
Waller, 58, has been an avid neon sign collector since age 9. He grew up in Lynnfield, back when Route 1 teemed with sculptures of light. In the ‘80s, he started preserving these endangered relics, and he enlisted Lynn when they began dating in 1988. “It wasn’t like, ‘What are we going to do this weekend?’” Waller recalled. “It was more like, ‘Which neon sign are we going to rescue before they go to the dump?’”
Dozens of these recovered signs — from a “Kiddie Land” arc that once welcomed patrons to Rhode Island’s Crescent Park, to a candy-red Dunkin’ Donuts sign circa 1955 — now hang in Neon Williams’s cramped Joy Street workshop. Most are available for rent. Waller estimates that Neon Williams has inherited the inventory of 12 different neon shops as they shuttered, one by one, over the years.
The shop’s rescues can also be spotted all over the city. “I put [signs] into restaurants or venues semi-permanently and then rent them for a dollar a year, just to get them out and enjoyed by the public,” said Waller, who displayed eight vintage signs from his collection on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in 2018. “The last thing I want to do is hoard them all.”
So Neon Williams finds itself holding on, despite the proliferation in recent years of cheaper, more environmentally efficient LED lighting. But what will it take to keep the lights on in the years to come?
Construction of the East Somerville station of the Green Line extension is adjacent to the shop, and the North River Company, which acquired the property and surrounding area in May of 2020, may relocate the shop to the nearby Joy Street Studios, said North River Company vice president Andy Dulac. Waller said he considered buying a piece of property for the shop but that nothing near Boston is in his price range.
“We will not be able to afford wherever we go — to set up the neon plant and the electricity and get it permitted,” Waller said, expressing concern about gentrification of the Somerville neighborhood.
The one certainty? Neon Williams’s signs will keep the city aglow for years.
“That’s kind of fun, to be part of the continuing legacy of neon in the city,” Waller said. “Being the ones who are keeping these things lit.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org