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It made Times Square a dazzling tourist mecca and lured millions to the casinos of Las Vegas, shaping our cultural ideas about nightlife.
During its heyday in the 1940s to SSRq60s, neon light was sophisticated and eye-grabbing, conveying excitement and conviviality.
Then it fell out of fashion and began to be seen as tacky and garish.
Today, LED lighting and other kinds of signage have largely pushed neon aside. But artists continue to work with it, creating sculptures of light that are shown in galleries. And neon signs have become treasured nostalgia pieces -- luminous antiques that conjure fond memories of bygone streetscapes.
A travelling exhibit exploring the beauty and inner workings of neon is switching on today and running through Jan. 3 at the Manitoba Museum.
In the Glow: The Science Behind the Art of Neon, on view in the museum's Alloway Hall, is produced by a Las Vegas company called Exhibit IQ. Winnipeg is the first city to show it since its 2008 debut at the Science Museum of Western Virginia.
Visitors tour it in the dark, although there's plenty of light to see where you're going. "Neon light is very compelling," says Scott Young, the museum's manager of science communication. "It has a very different effect on you than normal light does."
Recent research has shown that our eyes and brains perceive neon differently than other kinds of light, Young says. Neon actually seems to stimulate a positive response, perhaps helping to explain its advertising allure. "It makes people happy," he says.
In the Glow features about 12 neon signs and vibrant art pieces. Some are vintage, such as a pair of eyes from a 1960s optometrist's sign. The piece that shows the most intricate looping, curving and fusing of neon tubing and creates the biggest "wow" is a multicoloured dragon made in the 1990s.
As well, about 10 contemporary plasma artworks are displayed in a black-walled gallery in the centre of the room.
Sculptural plasma pieces use heavier glass than neon works and contain a gas mixture charged with electricity. The current shoots through the plasma, giving each piece the appearance of bottled motion. "It's like capturing lightning in a glass vessel," says Exhibit IQ producer John Good. "It kind of dances."
Although viewers can't touch those plasma pieces, they're meant to play with a 1.2-metre plasma Mesmer tube. When you touch it, your body's magnetic field attracts the lightning-like current.
The show traces the history of neon lighting and explains the science behind it. A video monitor will continuously show a short film called How Neon Works.
There are interactive stations where visitors can walk through a neon doorway that responds by glowing more brightly, or push buttons to compare the brightness and energy consumption of different kinds of light.
The show has been localized with the participation of The Neon Factory, a business on Main Street near the museum. Owner Mike Wolchock collects and repairs neon signs, supplies them to movie shoots and considers his shop to be a museum and gallery.
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His brother Joe is practically the last neon tube bender still active in Winnipeg, says Wolchock, whose favourite still-in-use neon sign is the one at Rae & Jerry's.
Wolchock is bringing about 15 classic Winnipeg signs from his collection to display in the exhibit. Some are already glowing, like the Blue Note Café sign that originally (probably in the 1940s) read Main Spot, but had its lettering changed when the Blue Note took over the Main Spot location in the 1980s.
Every Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. during In the Glow, Wolchock will be in the exhibit hall doing restoration work. He'll start by working on a sign from Clifford's, the women's clothing store that disappeared from Portage Avenue.
The rarest jewel he's bringing is the still-functioning Winnipeg Turkish Baths sign from the basement of the long-demolished Royal Alexandra Hotel. "It's the oldest sign I own. It dates back to the late 1920s," he says.
The Las Vegas-based Good is impressed with what he's seen of our neon heritage. "It's so great to see a city like Winnipeg that really appreciates neon and wants to preserve it," he says.
Exhibit only, $5 (students/seniors/youth $3, family $16)
Sign of the times
Neon is one of the five luminous noble gases. The others are argon, krypton, xenon and helium.
This year marks the centennial of the neon sign. In 1910, France's Georges Claude invented it by passing an electrical current through a sealed glass tube of neon gas.
In 1923, Claude's company created the first neon signs in the United States for a car dealership with locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The signs caused a sensation because their glow was much brighter than other lighting of the day.
Neon is very energy-efficient. It uses up to 75 per cent less electricity than incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.