Signs of All Kinds Since 1964

Reprinted with permission from the article “Rediscovering Neon” in the December 2006 issue of Sign Builder Illustrated:

Over the years, we have encountered many people who “rescue” vintage neon signs.  They borrow trucks, cranes, and work crews (usually at some God-forsaken hour of the night or day), all in an effort to preserve a little piece of the past.  They store their horde in warehouses, museums, empty stores, and even their own homes.  They do all this as a way of saving a tiny part of our “collective memory.”

Mistakenly, many have assumed that due to the overwhelming demand for newer technologies, the neon tube benders have fallen by the wayside: therefore, those who are attempting to recreate the look are the “newbies” of the industry.  This mindset may be correct for some but certainly not for others.  Some of these tube benders are currently being commissioned to make new sings with a “vintage look.”  Such is the case with Randy Hentges from ABS Sign Company in Cape May County, New Jersey.

The interesting thing about Randy Hentges is that he never stopped doing what he does best – creating neon.  So now, for Randy, it has come full circle, and people are looking to him to once again create neon vestiges that resemble the old masters.  Randy has to chuckle when he does this, because he has not stopped creating neon since he entered the field in his fathers footsteps back in the early ‘80s.

Randy’s dad, Bob Hentges, entered the sign business in the early ‘50s in a casual way.  A kid he knew was working at a sign place that needed extra help – enter Bob Hentges.  Two years later, when Bob’s boss would not raise his pay to one dollar an hour, he went to work for another sign company, ACE Signs.  He stayed with ACE Signs for eight years before deciding to branch out on his own.  With a borrowed wad of cash ($2,500), and old utility truck, and some sheet metal tools, Bob started his own business.

In the beginning, the cart definitely came before the horse.  “During the ‘50s and ‘60s, a lot of the rooming houses in town came down, and the motel building craze was going full speed ahead,” remembers Bob.  “A lot of these motel owners had not even thought of a name for their place, but they needed a sign.  So we did it all: We named the motel, built and installed the sign, and ended up creating a logo for their business that they would give to a printer to put on everything from brochures to ashtrays.”

But the ‘70s and ‘80s were dry years for neon.  Plastic signs were all the rage.  Neon was too expensive and too fragile.  Repairs were too costly.  But by the beginning of the ‘90s, many agreed that nothing beat neon for the variety of colors, designs, and applications – not to mention, how memorable it was to the customers.  As Bob says, “If you can dream it, you can make it with neon.”

Bob (now sixty-nine years old) attributes most of his success in the business to his innovative designers and the skill of his son.  “I remember Randy came to me in the early ‘80s ad said he wanted to go to a school in West Palm Beach that taught neon tube bending,” he says.  “Randy wanted to go to Florida for one week but stayed for two and ended up costing me the best $2,500 I ever invested in my life.”

During the ‘80s, casinos up the coast in Atlantic City were being build at a breakneck pace.  Randy explains, “They were literally sending us tractor-trailer loads of wire mesh that needed the bent glass applied to it.  We did a lot of work for the casinos, especially The Showboat.  We even did the half circles over a lot of the slot machines.  I think between the ages of nineteen to twenty-five, I must have spent sixteen hours a day just doing neon.  With that kind of practice, you are bound to get good – and fast.”

With the ‘90s in full swing, Randy pretty much assumed most of the business.  Randy and his crew spent a lot of time creating new neon (and other sign formats), servicing existing neon, and dreaming of the “next phase.”

The “next phase” and the “last phase” for this seaside resort happened simultaneously.  While people were newly discovering the “cool, old signs” and “funky motels,” they were also being demolished at an astonishing rate.

Since the beginning of the new century until the present, countless building had been torn down, most carrying a great old-fashioned sign.  At the same time, the resort was being “rediscovered” and new businesses wanted a “retro-looking” neon sign.  Enter Randy Hentges again.

With the “rediscovery” came innovative places like The Starlux hotel and Costal Broadcasting, both of which sought Randy’s expertise, not only in sign design but also in façade structure.  The Starlux is a new hotel built to look both ‘50s-esque and “space age.”  (But of course, that is the whole point of this resort).  Costal Broadcasting wanted a totally classic look – a throwback to radio stations of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  ABS created an Art Deco look for their building, not only in the signage but in the metal façade and wrapped neon borders as well.

Soon others followed: ice cream parlors, motels, a national sandwich chain (Subway), and a host of other businesses.  “I think the end of the ‘tear down ‘ is here,” says Randy.  “There is a huge glut of condos in this town that are not turning over as quickly as the developers had hoped.  We are starting to see a small upswing in the desire to “return to neon,” not only by this community, but by the many others we service.”

To drive up and down the roads of this costal gem with Randy and marvel at what is left of the great neon signs (and how 95 percent of them were created by ABS), one has to take a deep breath.  Randy muses on the legacy that he and his father created in this way: “You know, you are so busy building the signs, getting them up, making certain they work properly, making sure the customer is happy, and getting them billed, that you rarely have the time to step away and look at the whole picture.”

Well, if Randy and Bob did take that moment and step away, they would soon realize that most of our collective memory of what is, what has been, and probably what is to come in Wildwood, New Jersey, came out of their shop.