Neon restorer, New Mexico Route 66 Association board member dies of COVID-19

Johnny Plath working on the motor of the rotosphere for El Comedor in Moriarty

Johnny Plath, 68, a board member with the New Mexico Route 66 Association and a restorer of several historic neon signs along the route, died Friday after contracting the coronavirus.

According to a news release Saturday from the association, Plath contracted the disease while tending to his father, who also died from it.

The Sun ‘n Sand Motel sign in Santa Rosa

Plath and his brother, Larry, created and restored neon signs at Southwest Outdoor Electric in Albuquerque. The most notable sign restorations on his resume were the closed Sun ‘n’ Sand Motel in Santa Rosa, the rotosphere at the now-defunct El Comedor in Moriarty and De Anza Motor Lodge in Albuquerque.

The restored rotosphere at El Comedor restaurant in Moriarty

Association President Melissa Lea Beasley and former president Johnnie Meier wrote in the news release:

Johnny’s partnership with the New Mexico Route 66 Association began in 2003 when he responded to a request for bids to support the Association’s Route 66 Neon Sign Preservation Project. Johnny bid on two of the most difficult restorations, the massive Sun ‘n Sand motel sign in Santa Rosa and a mechanical neon marvel, the rotosphere, in Moriarty. Johnny knew full well that these projects would not be profitable, but Johnny was motivated by the opportunity to bring these classic neon icons back to life.
We are fortunate to have captured Johnny’s passion for neon signage in the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary film “Route 66: The Neon Road.” Johnny was one of the featured highlights of the film.
Johnny’s humor was showcased as he talked on film about driving down the road with the wild-looking rotosphere on a trailer behind his truck and commenting the unit looked like a naval mine and his concern he might be stopped by the Department of Transportation. Later in the documentary, Johnny is shown pondering the inside of the rotosphere and musing the mechanical gears that provided the rotosphere’s multi-axis rotation looked to him to be a Ford Model A rear end. Johnny was clearly fascinated with the rotosphere and was determined to overhaul it and let it once again mesmerize travelers on Route 66. Johnny and his brother are also shown delicately reinstalling the restored massive Sun ‘n Sand sign with their towering crane truck.
Johnny never stopped caring about Route 66 and its iconic signs and in 2019 led a team that restored the historic De Anza Motor Lodge neon sign in Albuquerque. Just weeks before his passing, an energized and vibrant Johnny joined a team of preservationists onsite to develop a plan for preserving the endangered Mountain Lodge neon sign in Carnuel.  Johnny, applying his expertise in sign construction and design, put forth a plan, generously donating thousands of dollars of his professional time. 

More about the association’s neon-sign restoration program in 2003 may be read here.

The “Route 66: The Neon Road” documentary can be viewed below on KNME-TV’s portal. It’s a fantastic film:

Cards, letters of condolences and donations to assist with medical expenses may be mailed to:

Shelley Plath
c/o New Mexico Route 66 Association
1415 Central Ave NE
Albuquerque, NM 87106

The De Anza Motor Lodge sign in Albuquerque

(Images of Johnny Plath and the rotosphere courtesy of the New Mexico Route 66 Association; image of the De Anza Motor Lodge sign in Albuquerque via Facebook; image of the Sun ‘n Sand Motel neon sign by el-toro via Flickr)

3 thoughts on “Neon restorer, New Mexico Route 66 Association board member dies of COVID-19

  1. Damn, that’s very, very sad. Johnny Plath passed away from the virus after trying to help his own father, who also died from Covid-19. That’s terrible. Johnny Plath was only 68 years young and a way cool guy who cared about Route 66 and restoring vintage neon signs. What a loss for the Route 66 community. Rest in Peace Mr. Johnny Plath.

  2. We have had similar pairs of deaths in the UK – couples dying within days of each other as one example. Isolation does seem to be essential, even if it means great emotional hardship.

  3. Very sad and not only a great loss for New Mexico, but 66 and life in general. Covid 19 is real folks and taking people. Distance, stay at Home and wear face mask when going out. RIP Johnny Plath.

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