Within a one-mile stretch, South Lamar reveals itself to be Austin's most radiant neon district. Intended or not, the effect of so much neon in one area makes for a happy, congruous urban plan. Ground zero for this area is the west side of the street's 2000 block, the small parking lot shared by Hayward Neon, Neon Jungle, the Horseshoe Lounge, and Amelia's Retrovogue, which features Amelia's revolving globe, orbited by white neon airplanes. Even tucked within this cul-de-sac of a car park is a jolly animated "Trampoline" sign for the Tenderfoot Company which sells trampolines and parts all over the country. One block north is the stunning Robert's Pest Control sign which features a creepy red cucaracha with scampering legs. La Feria's neon accents brighten what might be the longest-lasting enterprise at that location (1816 S. Lamar), and B & M Automotive (1615 S. Lamar) and Ray Hennig's Heart of Texas Guitars (1002 S. Lamar) have installed two brilliant and ominous signs within the last two years. My personal favorite is the spray can atop Longhorn Collison's facade in the 1600 block. Too bad its transformers are blown. When it is lit, it's a sight to be seen.
While the Eastside doesn't feature one specific district of neon, the glowing tubes pepper many of the neighborhood's restaurants and shops. My favorite signs are the animated flash of the blue videocassettes and yellow CD of Discoteca Sanchez (2711 E. Cesar Chavez) and the purple spire of the Delwood Plaza (N. I-35 & 38th St). Mexican restaurants, however, are the prime holders of neon stock, both with festive Hispanic market-targeted beer signs inside and glowing red-white-&-green colores de la bandera on the outside: Juan in a Million (2300 E. Cesar Chavez), Cisco's (1511 E. Sixth), Mexico Tipico (1707 E. Sixth), Pato's Tacos (1400 E. 381/2), and La Palapa (6640 Hwy290 E.), all feature simple yet effective neon piping. Even the boondoggle Don Limon restaurant on East Seventh keeps its sky blue and yellow signage lit, despite being closed for quite a while. The restaurants aren't the only cool lit places: The classic red Pay & Takit sign at 13th & Airport and the blue neon cross of the Church of New Life on Montopolis are about as far apart as one can get spiritually, but their common thread is in glass tube and some inert gas.
Despite South Lamar's lead, a close contender for neon mecca is Burnet Road. The centerpiece of Burnet's neon is the revolving star over Muriel Motors. The orange and yellow spiked star originally sat atop a downtown bank. Tim Trembly from Nationwide Neon made it functional again. The Frisco Shop at Burnet & Koenig displays two classic neon fixtures: the colorful Frisco Melt sign on the road and the animated flying nighthawk, from the restaurant chain of the same name, hawking, er, harking back to the Frisco's ancestral roots. Heading north, the sign for Austin Metal Creations (5120), Benold's Jewelers (5228), Good Eats Cafe (6801), Ichiban Sushi (7310), and Hudson's Grill (8440), brighten up this commercial strip.
Home & Custom
By now, everyone's seen the neon accent under the carriages and bordering the license plates of area lowriders. Part of neon's appeal is its flexibility. The Bluebonnet neighborhood in South Austin, west of Lamar and east of Zilker Park, features a number of addresses with custom neon street address numbers. At 5011 E. Sixth in East Austin, a curious display lights the night, replete with a neon guitar strapped across what looks to be an Elvis cutout on the roof. Our favorite is the Banana Moon, a fixture in the West Campus neighborhood, just west of the Breed & Co. parking lot (29th & West).
The latest trend in neon design is actually a return to an old technique, that of mounting neon tubing behind cut letters or standouts to create a lush bed of background color. The old Publix Supermarkets of the southeast coastal U.S. utilized this with a hypnotic animated display of block letters which flashed green, black, white, and grey-green in succession. In Austin today, sign creators are wrapping neon behind cut sheet metal for glorious effect: The Austin Metal Creations sign on Burnet (the cutters of much of this very metal); the Longhorn Po-Boy signs (2901 Medical Arts); Galeria Sin Fronteras (1701 Guadalupe); the purple Wrapido spiral (3023 Guadalupe); the Zig-Zag Salon sign (3200 Guadalupe); and the Mangia Pizza sign (3500 Guadalupe) are just a few local examples of this backlit technique.
Sometimes the simple classics are the most effective: Take, for example, The Tavern, stripped down to one basic message, recalling a time when the luxury of air conditioning was a draw in the merciless Austin summers. Whether these signs have been refurbished or updated, their classic elegance remains: Ichiban Sushi and Benold's Jewelers on Burnet; the Texas Village Motor Inn's animated arrows on N. I-35; Flamingo Automotive (3516 Guadalupe); Wheatsville (3101 Guadalupe); Centennial Liquor (2932 Guadalupe, et al.); Pleasureland (613 W. 29th); Kruger's Jewelers (Congress & Eighth); and Austin Motel, St. Elmo Motel, and The Classic Inn (1220, 4419, and 4606 S. Congress, respectively) are about as classic as they come. Rescued & Restored Walk into either Threadgill's location to see where old neon goes to die - or live, as the case may be. One example: the old Twin Oaks sign from the aesthetically doomed shopping center of the same name at Oltorf & South Congress. What they were thinking when they tore down one of Austin's prettiest neon centerpieces and erected that horrible green and white plastic tribute to bad taste is beyond comprehension. The noble Oaks sign is safe at home at Threadgill's World Headquarters (301 W. Riverside), among a confounding variety of other signs, including the one from the original Nighthawk. Now if someone could just help out the sign at Longhorn Meats on MLK, the Don-Mar sign on South Congress, and the Bluebonnet Court on Guadalupe.
Heading north on I-35 becomes a surreal adventure if you keep your eyes open. In this odd commercial zone, there is exquisite neon sprinked amidst the warehouses, strip malls, and strip clubs. Past the explosion of neon in between the 3800 and 4100 block - including Delwood's Fiesta Supermarket (38th & N. I-35), The Austin Chronicle (40th & N. I-35) and Public Storage's (41st & I-35) purple, yellow, and orange rim (which from an airplane looks like an alien landing pad, according to one of our editors) - emerges a strip surrounding Capital Plaza, where the calming blue waves of Baby Acapulco (5610 N. I-35) mix nicely with its neon palms and pink elephants. Palmeras (6019 N. I-35) continues the palm theme. The Old San Francisco Steakhouse (8709 N. I-35) features chaser bulbs highlighted with thin, yellow neon curly-Qs.
The cornerstone of this gateway to the north, however, would have to be the Saturday Midnight Bingo billboard (9602 N. I-35). It is a regular rent-by-the-month highway placard, operated by Dinosaur Outdoors, but it's distinguished by a frenetic neon border, recalling 1950s movie marquees. Funny, that, because as old-timers might recognize, it actually is the remains of the North Austin Drive-In marquee, originally located at Burnet & 183 and moved to its current spot in 1965. Travelodge and River City Bingo currently rent the ad space, but it's our bet that this beacon is a billboard even Lady Bird Johnson might pardon. Right next door to the Bingo billboard is Pick-Up Heaven (10106 N. I-35) with soothing blue, white, and pink neon in a cloud motif on the building. Its highway sign, with time & temperature in LED, recalls the days when banks provided more service than surcharge.
Keep heading north; that's the way to the grand finale. The marquee and deco building facade of Movies 12 (15424 FM1825) is like that last blast of fireworks at the end of the display on the Fourth of July. The highway sign is a tasteful logo that barely hints at the fount of neon located up the driveway. The Movies 12 marquee walks the thin line between over-the-top gawdy and pure beloved tribute to art deco with its red, yellow, and green neon accents. Chasing incandescent marquee lights finish the impressive effect.