Guiding Lights

They have illuminated Orlando for decades, telling us where to eat, stay, shop—even what bread to buy. But vintage signs are more than just glass, metal and neon. They have become cultural beacons, thanks to the creators and caretakers who have kept the flame alive.

About a decade ago, Orlando’s leaders decided we desperately needed a southern gateway—something along Interstate 4 that would make a good impression on motorists and leave little doubt that they were entering The City Beautiful. They chose the new Conroy Road bridge as the site, dolling it up with the city seal, four pairs of decorative spires, a few dozen palm trees and bold, widely spaced lettering proclaiming O-R-L-A-N-D-O.

They needn’t have bothered—the real gateway to Orlando stands a little over 3 miles east of the Conroy entrance. It’s an old neon sign peeking around a couple of oak trees, a glowing red relic that does not literally say “Orlando,’’ but for more than four decades has signaled to city dwellers that home is just around the curve.

It says “Merita Bread.’’

Like the product it advertises, the sign has an old-fashioned goodness—a goodness shared by the dwindling lineup of vintage signs that still dot the city. The neon beauties are the best. The Parliament House marquee still blazes brightly and the Stewart Jewelry diamond glows nightly. And where else in the world can you see a chicken wearing a Rebel cap than at Olde Dixie Fried Chicken?

They aren’t much to look at during the day—the framework of the bread company’s sign resembles the rickety skeleton of a wooden roller-coaster. But Merita at night?

Bob Galler stands in the Morse Museum warehouse beside two of the dozens of Orlando-area signs he designed—Home and Hobby House and Harper’s Tavern.

“It pops,’’ says Bob Galler.

Galler should know. He designed Merita and dozens of other signs that adorn businesses or used to—McNamara Pontiac, Gary’s Duck Inn, City of Cars among them. He made the Tour-O-Tel’s neon swimmer dive and splash along North Orange Blossom Trail, and City Luggage’s glowing suitcase open and close at the corner of Church and Orange. And he’s also crafted numerous signs for Walt Disney World and Universal.

After 56 years of sign making, though, Galler picks Ronnie’s as his favorite. The Colonial Drive restaurant, which closed in 1995, boasted a gigantic neon signature that glowed aqua and spelled out the name in script.

The soft-spoken granddaddy of Orlando sign design—he’s 79 now but looks at least 10 years younger—has done so many that he doesn’t always recognize his creations immediately. “Even today, when I ride around, I pass signs I did and say, ’Oh, for heaven’s sake, I remember doing that.’

“It makes you feel good that they’ve got so much of your stuff out there,’’ says Galler. “But it makes you feel sad when you see it come down.’’

MANY USED TO COME DOWN and go to the junk heap, before we got a clue and realized that plain billboards and LED signs were the tract homes of outdoor advertising. Hugh McKean, for one, recognized that vintage signs were art, or another vestige of old Orlando would have been forever lost. The late director of Winter Park’s Morse Museum of American Art launched a rescue mission of landmark signs in the early 1990s, and the first beneficiary was the dazzling emblem of the Orange Court Motor Lodge, saved from the wrecking ball that pulverized its downtown namesake.

Today the Orange Court sign, with its flashing oranges, leads a comfortable existence in Morse’s climate-controlled warehouse, along with a multitude of other old signs. Among them are what stood as the public faces of Club Juana, a strip club in Casselberry, Home & Hobby House, Parisian Cleaners, Harper’s Tavern, Miller’s Hardware and, of course, Ronnie’s. The museum has spent a bundle to restore them to their former flashiness.

“That they light up gives them such an inherent intensity,’’ says museum director Laurence Ruggiero. “What’s not to like?’’

He envisions a day when the signs will be made accessible to the public, perhaps in a “Florida collection’’ gallery or a separate museum. They’ll be given a place of honor because McKean, whose museum is best known for its Tiffany art collection, “had this incredibly strong feeling that all art, however it was produced, from known or unknown people, should be given a fair chance,’’ Ruggiero says.

Sadly, many of those “known or unknown people’’ who created the vintage signs—in particular, the “neon benders”—“have passed, retired or moved on,’’ says local sign company owner Greg Yoder, who has helped Morse restore some of its gems.

“Not many of the old timers are left,’’ says Yoder, 58. He remembers one in particular: “Neon Woody, he made a lot of glass in the old days. He’s a very good glass bender. It takes a talent.’’

Craig Wood, aka “Neon Woody,” uses a sketch as a guide while shaping a heated glass rod in his shed near DeLand. Wood’s father taught him the art of neon bending.

IT’S A LONG WAY from the modern Morse warehouse to a stucco shed near DeLand that could be classified as nondescript were it not for the message broadcast over the door in pink neon script:

“Happy Birthday Jesus.’’

This is the workshop of Craig Wood, better known as “Neon Woody.” After a career of bending neon for companies like Budweiser and Miami Subs, Wood now takes care of his 86-year-old dad, George, also a master bender, on a several-acres tract of woods and fields bisected by dirt roads that leave MapQuest in the dust.

Wood, 61, is as colorful as his work, explaining in his gravelly voice the difference between a bender and a glass blower (“Benders blow just enough to bend it. Glass blowers take it to a molten state.’’); recounting his travels (he used to make a good living swooping into hurricane-devastated areas and re-creating broken signs); recalling his bending of the Planet Hollywood sign at Downtown Disney (it was so big “we broke the ‘p’ just getting it out of the driveway.’’); and describing the way neon works (electrodes ‘excite,’ rather than ‘ignite’ the gas molecules inside the glass tube. “That’s why it’ll never burn out because it doesn’t burn’’).

Wood is semi-retired, taking on jobs from friends, doing a lot of “freehand’’ in his shop. He is a stocky and robust man with an easy laugh, and he talks a lot, which may account for why he sleeps so little. He goes to bed at 8 every night and sleeps for four hours, then it’s up and to work in his sign shed until 7 a.m. “This is where I play. This is my therapy,’’ he says.

Two of his children are benders, as is a sister and her husband. But Wood worries about the future of neon because “today to find a real neon man, you have to find someone my age or older.’’ He wants to offer a workshop on bending and says he has 10 people interested in learning. And he’s dreaming big on another front: He seems dead serious about turning some of his land into an outdoor neon sign museum, where visitors could drive his country lanes and absorb the glow. Maybe they could even drop a few bucks in a collection box, just to help him pay the power bills.

As he talks, Wood holds a long tube of yellow glass to the gas flame near his workbench, the prelude to bending. “It’s hypnotic. It’s mesmerizing,’’ he says of neon, an air of mystery in his voice. Then he stops and squints; his voice almost becomes a whisper as he points to a heart-shaped creation glowing on a table across the room.

“Even standing here right now, you want to look at that neon,’’ he says.

And you do, because it just feels right, like some kind of soothing comfort food for the soul. You hope that no more old signs come down, that neon keeps making its periodic comebacks, that it doesn’t “die a terrible death’’ as Neon Woody fears. That the goofy Dixie chicken in Pine Castle will hold onto his cap, that the Parliament House on North Orange Blossom Trail won’t opt for a fancy LED message board, that the cowboy on the Western Way Shopping Center sign on West Colonial, who lost his neon lariat years ago, can still stay in the saddle.

And you hope that Merita Bread stays Merita Bread, not because it’s better than any other loaf on the supermarket shelf. But because you still want to see that welcoming red glow at Orlando’s southern gateway. Taking you back to another time. Bringing you home.

Categories: Features