The Stories Behind Austin’s Iconic Signs
How both classic neon and changing design continue to draw patrons to local restaurants and theatres
Many of Austin's most iconic signs have weathered theft, damage, and waves of style but remain bat signals for both longtime fans and brand-new visitors of our local treasures. From original neon and vintage scripts to restored and revamped handmade art pieces, the local cityscape (along with many homegrown theatres and restaurants) owes much of its charm to the incredible design and artistry behind the scenes.
The Paramount Theatre
Making a new sign is one challenge. Restoring a historical sign is another. Re-creating a lost landmark when you only have archive photos and home movies is a whole new challenge. The original Paramount blade (as it's known) was mounted in 1930 when the Majestic Theatre on Congress became a Paramount-Publix, taken down in 1963 for renovation – and then completely disappeared. After over 50 years of naked frontage, the theatre contracted Wagner Sign Company from Elyria, Ohio (experts in restoring and re-creating historic signage), to rebuild the distinctive flashing vertical logo and give Austin's main thoroughfare its crowning glory again – just in time for the venue's centennial in 2015. – Richard Whittaker
Alamo Drafthouse Colorado/South Lamar
When Tim and Karrie League opened the original Downtown Alamo Drafthouse on Colorado, they did everything to cut costs. "Even the paint came from Habitat for Humanity," explained Tim League, but the one place they didn't cut corners was the sign. "Neon evokes classic cinema, and I wanted it to be a beacon on the street that embodied who we were and what we were trying to do." Designed and fabricated by Evan Voyles of Neon Jungle, the Leagues saved it when the old Colorado site closed in 2007, and moved it to the South Lamar site when that was refurbished in 2014. It's such an Austin icon that Jimmy Kimmel Live! built a replica when they recorded episodes here – without telling the Drafthouse. League still got the last laugh. "Someone alerted me to it on Ebay, so I bought it for $700 and it now hangs in our office." – R.W.
Film in motion. That's what's evoked by the sign in front of AFS Cinema, with the classic society logo – designed by Austin's Foxtrot agency – next to the word cinema, split top and bottom.
"It gives the impression of frames going through the projector lens," explained AFS Head of Film & Creative Media Holly Herrick. That design, as well as the fast flicker of the lights (all the work of Neon Jungle's Evan Voyles), combine to create what Herrick called "this incredible, kinetic structure." Yet the idea wasn't just about creating a logo for the cinema, but for the revitalized Highland area. "It was a forgotten corner that's rapidly changing as Austin expands, so we wanted to have an iconic sign that drives people to the place." – R.W.
When designing the sign for Eldorado Cafe, owners Joel and Joanna Fried wanted something simple with a vintage twist. "Something that looked like an old hotel sign. Something iconic. We wanted that vintage hotel look," said Joanna. "It seems like the simple act of making your sign a bit more vintage gives you an edge in representing older Austin." The logo was designed by Wyatt Brand, and Ashleigh Fiddler at CND Signs designed the sign. And the hard work paid off, with patrons recognizing the wonderful Mexican-inspired restaurant, and continues to shine on their success. "That sign, when we first came up Shoal Creek heading North and hit Anderson, we could see it from the light. It blew our minds that this was real. It was finally happening. We owned a restaurant." – Jessi Cape
On the story behind the iconic South Congress Avenue sign, founder/president Kent Cole said, "After some startup years with a painted wooden sign (which is now fastened to the front of the building), we had the current neon street sign designed and built. Gary Martin had done both stores' signs since the early years, always on plywood. He chose the basic style out of this cool book of Fifties roadside signs. We had him add the 'Sorry, We're Open' put below just to give people something to think about. (Gary Martin designed the sign [and] our Lake Austin Boulevard store sign. Evan Voyles of Neon Jungle did the neon.)" And even today, Magnolia's sign is a lighthouse for tasty late-night – and anytime – food.
"We want people to be able to find our cafes, even in the dark." – J.C.
Downtown is jam-packed with flashy signs, so Comedor decided to go a different route. Co-owner William Ball said, "We love neon and Evan Voyles' work in particular (we have one of his neon signs next door at Garage), but after spending time on it with artists Ryan Rhodes and Caleb Owen Everitt, we decided it wasn't right for our building. Instead, Ryan and Caleb came up with the brass sign [manufactured by Hawkeye Glenn] that is at the entrance of Comedor today. It has an organic feel to it that is interesting in the context of the building's strong architecture and materials. The way the sign is both a statement (about Comedor) while also showing deference to everything else going on is very good. Ryan and Caleb are brilliant in that way." Just as the restaurant is creating new visions with food, their branding also sets them apart. "In general, we think signage should reflect the project's ethos and attitude, so that may call for the sign to live and exist in different, unprescribed ways." – J.C.
Maria's Taco Xpress
Austin signage, some eclectic and some classic, has always been cool, but at the time Maria's Taco Xpress opened 23 years ago, much of it was made just with what small-business owners had on hand. That's the case for her welcoming Maria, said owner Maria Corbalan: "I am from Argentina and Eva Perón always welcomed everybody with open arms, and my friend Michael Peschka [the sign's designer, who also constructed it] decided that it would be awesome to create a sculpture that reflected that message." They wanted something different from the neon (which was "everywhere at the time") and found inspiration from Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans. Over the years, they've repaired the bust many times – "Her arms were even stolen once 12 years ago" – but it's always remained a beacon. "Our sign is the most important piece of this building. People use her as a wayfinding marker to give directions – even in this time of phone maps, she is an iconic marker in Austin." – J.C.
Identifiable signage, like the neon lotus flower at the original Sway location on South First, is essential in Austin, but more clandestine signs like Otoko can also be powerful. Melanie Raines, New Waterloo's director of design, said, "It was an early design statement that [Sway] be marked by only a neon lotus, without the accompanying name, building curiosity to what's inside. The lotus flower of each Sway is different in detailing and color family from one another, but has never been rebranded. The singular lotus is the thesis statement of the brand position and design intent: simple, impactful, mysterious." And the neon itself speaks volumes: "To me, Austin is defined by its neon. Working with the gas to get the colors right is truly an art form." Sway's lotus was designed and fabricated by South Austin native Evan Voyles of the Neon Jungle, considered the resident master of neon. "Some businesses have switched from neon to imitation-neon using LED technology. ... I believe that LEDs have countless benefits, but that signage is the most important handshake with the street, and an important contribution to Austin's vibe. It's refreshing to see that many local businesses continue to opt for real neon and support the art form." – J.C.
Home Slice Pizza
Jen Strickland, co-owner of Home Slice Pizza, always admired the old-school vibe of the neon restaurant signs in New York City and around Austin, but couldn't afford much on their original shoestring budget. "I don't think there was ever much of a question that we wanted neon, it was just so classic and festive. A place with a cool neon sign is a place we want to go ourselves." Their original neon sign on South Congress (created by Evan Voyles) featured the name in red open face channel letters, along with "Queen of Pies" in gold script (a character designed by Ed Temple, then at Milkshake Media). Later, when they acquired the space next door, complete with a sign pole, Voyles was excited to make the Queen's pizza toss animated. Strickland remembered seeing the in-progress sign template, with Voyles' hand-drawn letters in a font he created, stretched across the house. Fun fact: In the first iteration, blue neon represented the black lines in the Queen of Pies' winking eyes, hair, and mustache, but it ended up looking "really creepy," so they removed the neon from her eyes. "We also wanted to make the neighborhood and the street proud, as we were joining a group of iconic businesses with unique and artful signs of their own that we already admired. [Our sign's] popularity supports the conviction we share with Evan: that authenticity matters and beautiful things built the way they've always been built have true allure." – J.C.
What are some iconic signs around town that make you think of Austin?
Jen Strickland, co-owner, Home Slice Austin Motel, Continental Club, Matt's El Rancho, the Broken Spoke, Sandy's Hamburgers, the State Theatre, Top Notch Burgers, Ranch 616, Lucy's Fried Chicken, Justine's, Favorite Liquor, El Arroyo, the Frisco, Lammes Candies. And I really miss Uncommon Objects. That sign was incredible.
William Ball, co-owner, Comedor The neon sign at Justine's and the cowboy riding a tarpon at the Yeti store, designed by McGarrah Jessee, the ad agency next door to Comedor.
Melanie Raines, New Waterloo's Director of Design, Sway When I first moved to Austin, I worked on the remodel of the Austin Motel – arguably one of the most iconic signs in town. We constantly had to reassure people we weren't changing it! Aside from that, the Sandy's "frozen custard and root beer" is a favorite, along with Hole in the Wall – I love their font.
Maria Corbalan, owner, Maria's Taco Xpress Not enough are left; it is sad. I think of signs like the Broken Spoke or the old Frisco restaurant that was part of the Night Hawk group that are all closed now.
Kent Cole, founder/owner, Magnolia Cafe Paramount Theatre, the Tavern, Kruger's, Ritz, Grove Drug, Seaholm, St. Elmo-tel.
Joanna Fried, co-owner, Eldorado Cafe Lucy's, the Omelettry, Stubb's, Paramount.