Part of what drew Diana Kirk to Workers Tavern, which she recently acquired from Mary Todd, was the history of the 91-year-old business.
Kirk came across a historical photo from 1964 showing the Workers Tavern, beneath the construction of the new Astoria Bridge, complete with a neon sign.
“I found out there used to be neon signs all around,” she said.
Last week, Kirk had a new neon sign installed in front of Workers Tavern. Designed by Jeff Miller with Red Dwarf Graphx, the sign was manufactured by Ramsay Signs under the direction of Bob Pershing, a sign-maker who started on the North Coast.
Kirk will hold a neon party Saturday, Feb. 10, to turn on the new sign for the first time (10 is the atomic number of the element neon). By then, she will have redone floors and a newly sealed bar top. Workers Tavern is located at 281 W. Marine Drive.
Pershing, 75, was born in Seaside and raised in Astoria. His father, Ed, was a neon tube-bender and sign-painter working under Arvid Wunola until late 1957, after which he moved to Seaside and started Ed’s Signs.
“After the war, there were a lot of them going up,” Pershing said of the neon signs, adding that his father bent a lot of neon tubes for Wunola.
Neon lights consist of a glass tube, heated and bent into the desired image and filled with the noble gas, plus an electrode at either end. An electric current knocks the atoms of the gas out of orbit. Electrons collide with each other and are sent back to atoms, creating energy and light. Other noble gases besides neon can be used for different colors — pink for helium, green for krypton and blue for argon. Often sign-makers will use a powder coating to create a certain color scheme.
Many of the gas-lit signs started disappearing by the 1970s as businesses changed and turned toward plastic-faced signs backlit with fluorescent lights, Pershing said. He makes signs for companies across the U.S., including Regal Cinemas and the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Most of his work these days has migrated to LEDs, or light-emitting diodes.
“They make an LED like neon, but it’s more expensive,” Pershing said. “I do see LED replacing neon.”
Part of neon’s relative demise is related to a global movement away from mercury, a toxic chemical element commonly used to make bright, multicolored gas-lit signs. The U.S. has moved to limit the use of mercury commercially. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, signed in 2013 by the U.S. and nearly 140 other countries, will phase out the manufacture, import and export of many mercury-infused products by 2020.
Along with Workers Tavern, Pershing has done neon signage for Astoria Brewing Co. and the Labor Temple Diner & Bar.