“The Zeon Files” provides a colorful glimpse of Albuquerque’s past with dozens of a company’s working drawings of neon signs that once graced the Route 66 corridor decades ago.
But what’s most striking is the drawings are revealed as detailed and precise as any architectural rendering. The people who made these signs weren’t just blue-collar guys who’d learned the trade of fire, electricity and glass. They were artists and craftsmen, and still are.
Although a half-dozen neon-sign companies operated in Albuquerque during the Route 66 golden era, the book concentrates on the Zeon Corp. mainly because of the recent discovery of its working drawings from 1956 to 1970.
The drawings — reproduced in color in “The Zeon Files” — show vividly signs that are long-gone from the Albuquerque landscape and other New Mexico towns, including the Terrace Drive-In theater, Eddie’s Inferno Cocktail Lounge, Paris Shoe Shop, Bimbo’s Drive Inn and Bunny Bread.
Route 66ers will delight in finding original drawings for Route 66 sign survivors such as the West Theatre in Grants, New Mexico; the Hiway House Motel in Albuquerque; and the Grants Cafe in Grants.
Co-authors Mark Childs and Ellen Babcock describe the general history of neon signs. The first neon advertisement was on a barbershop in Paris in 1912, although neon signs didn’t make their way to the United States about 10 years later. The first neon sign in Albuquerque likely was on the Firestone building on Central Avenue in 1927.
The authors tell a bit about Zeon’s artists, especially Jere Pelletier, who was so skilled, he made a neon hangman’s noose to see whether it could be done during the 1970s. When someone stole the noose from the shop, he made another.
Childs and Babcock also look into the preservation and possible reuse of orphaned signs. Babcock co-founded Friends of the Orphaned Signs, which reimagines long-abandoned signs as a new canvas for artwork. And Albuquerque, which began cracking down on big signs during the 1970s, recently saw fit to revise its codes to bring back more neon to the Route 66 corridor.
“The Zeon Files” is a tantalizing look at Albuquerque’s signs. It makes one wonder what other drawings lurk in storage lockers, attics and basements across the Duke City.