July-August 2011 | NOSTALGIA IN NEON

Alamo Motel
Dumser's DairylandEmpress MotelFlamingo MotelFun CityAtlantic HotelJolly RogerOcean Mecca MotelOcean NailsThe Party BlockMarty's PlaylandSportlandSportlandColony Apartments



Artist, photographer Elaine Bean captures the wondrous glow of neon in and around Ocean City

Written By: | Photographer: Elaine Bean

They conjure images of Route 66 and diners and roadside motels. They make a bold statement with just a flash of color. They are often artistic and always nostalgic. And, historically, they have dotted our commercial landscape for nearly a century now.

America’s love affair with neon began in the early 1920s, after a Frenchman introduced neon-lit signs to a Packard dealership in Los Angeles. Immediately, curious onlookers were drawn to them, calling them “liquid fire” and marveling at the concept
of a rare gas captured in glass and electrified.

Within years, there was an upsurge of neon signs across America, peaking in the 1950s and 1960s and exhibiting itself as an unusual art form. The popularity began to wane in the 1980s and 1990s; however, like most trends of the decades, neon is making a steady comeback as a means to attract customers to every form of commercial business. Today, the neon signs that have survived the years are now referred to as “retro” and “vintage,” while newer designs are finding a niche when paired with more modern technologies.       

Neon, a naturally occurring element, can be found seemingly everywhere, but Ocean City is home to several remarkable specimens of this vintage signage that have survived storms and hurricanes and the relentless march of modernization. 

These are natural treasures of an unusual sort.   

Because neon signs implicitly hark back to an older generation, businesses will purposefully use thisto their advantage. The neon frontage of Dumser’s restaurants recalls the nostalgic atmosphere of the 1940s diner. Since 1939, Dumser’s has been an iconic name on the island, and their creative use of neon, even in their newer restaurants, solidifies their spot on any vintage OC neon list.

Thematically, neon helps create a sense of atmosphere. Take the Ocean Mecca Motel and the Empress Motel, both located on Baltimore Street.

A flag bearer on an Arabian steed headed toward an oasis reveals the Middle Eastern theme behind the Ocean Mecca Motel, built in 1958 by William and Kathleen Harman. Neon was specifically chosen to help create a bit of a mysterious ambience: Kathleen Harman had a fondness for movies like The Sheik and The Voyages of Sinbad. She hoped that tourists would be led to her Ocean Mecca Motel as their oasis of choice in Ocean City. 

In 1965, Dorothy Taylor opened the Empress Motel, whose neon sign is original to the building. The peacock is a symbol of royalty and was often engraved on the thrones of kings in ancient Persia and Babylon. As a medium, neon allows the important colors of the peacock to resonate with the onlooker in a way that paint or plastic simply couldn’t bring to life. At the time this sign was created, artists had approximately 25 colors to choose from, but now that palette has grown to nearly 100.   

Perhaps one of the most legendary neon signs in West Ocean City is the Alamo Motel. The sombrero hanging lazily above the vertical bubble letters evokes a sleepy, south-of-the-border feeling. The current owner, Roscoe Nelson, traces the roots of the motel to a man named Bill Weaver, who settled on the Eastern Shore after World War II.  He had been to the real Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, and this gave him the inspiration for the name when he built the motel in 1945. Now, this Alamo stands as a testament to the
endurance of a neon sign’s character.

One of the oldest examples of neon in Ocean City belongs to the Atlantic Hotel. This neon sign went up in 1927, according to Charlie Purnell, whose great-grandfather purchased the hotel in 1923. In December 1925, the Atlantic Hotel burned down in a massive fire that destroyed three blocks of downtown Ocean City, including the pier.

When the hotel was rebuilt and reopened, it was touted as one of the grandest of its kind on the East Coast for its beauty and architecture. But the neon sign, which is enjoyed by guests, visitors and employees and owners, stands as a beacon of a bygone era.

The boardwalk of Ocean City practically buzzes with electricity, and a multitude of neon hues create an atmosphere of friviolity: popcorn, rides, arcades, games and more. 
One of the most iconic neon markers on the boardwalk is Marty’s Playland, which has two interesting sets of neon signage in an old-meets-new combination. First, the old oval on the roof has been there for several decades, cycles through the shades of red, yellow and green. It is an eight-circuit sign that requires a bucket truck to make repairs. The front of Marty’s Playland is awash in soft teal shades of blue as the sign simulates waves crashing. This one runs on an 18-circuit system. Due to the electricity demands, these signs are only turned on in the evening hours. But take a peek around the corner, and you might catch a glimpse of a neon PacMan chasing a ghost. 

Given the sheer volume of hotels and motels, seeing a neon vacancy sign is a roadside standard for any traveler.

In years past, those signs may have been strictly composed of neon gas; today, however, many signs that appear to be neon may actually contain other elements, like helium, carbon dioxide and argon. For energy efficiency, LED lights can be fashioned into neonlike structures.

For the contemporary spin on neon, the Party Block, on 17th Street and Coastal Highway, has created a citywide landmark: a 25-foot cocktail glass, replete with salt and lime. Constructed in 2003, the owners wanted to create a highly visual symbol for their establishment and settled on this idea after a visit to Las Vegas, where they saw a restaurant use a yard glass in a similar fashion, according to co-owner Robert Rosenblit.

In this structure, old meets new as this giant glass incorporates fiber optics into the neon design to give the salted rim its textured look. With the resurgence of neon signs into our landscape, truly vintage signs, like the one that hangs on the Atlantic Hotel, collide in time and space with the larger-than-life icons like the cocktail glass on the Party Block’s corner. Ocean City is just one more destination point where America’s
fascination with neon, both vintage and modern, can be seen and appreciated.

Editor’s note: Elaine Bean is an artist, photographer, advertising agency owner and independent account executive for Coastal Style Magazine. Her neon photography exhibit will be featured at The Globe in Berlin beginning July 8 (the town’s Second Friday Art Stroll) through July 31.

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