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Desert Companion

Paul Macias, Neon sign maker

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Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

One afternoon when he was 11, Paul Macias rode his bike 11 miles to his parents’ neon shop in North Hollywood — that’s how badly he wanted to work on neon signs.

One afternoon when he was 11, Paul Macias rode his bike 11 miles to his parents’ neon shop in North Hollywood — that’s how badly he wanted to work on neon signs. Thirty years and a move to Las Vegas later, that hasn’t changed. “It’s pretty much the only job I’ve ever had,” he says. And neon remains a family affair. When Desert Companion visited their shop, Paul’s Neon Signs #2, his mother, Ina, was working on a glowing token that implored “Be Nice.”

Though he drew sign patterns by hand when he started out, Paul now handles that on computer. Using fire, an employee known as a glass-bender shapes the long, fragile tubes according to Paul’s pattern. This is the part of the process that captivated Paul all those years ago. “I thought it was cool, with the fire,” he says. “My mom started to show me how to do simple things. I would stand on a booster step and heat up the glass.” For much of the process, the bender will blow through a rubber hose attached to the glass tube to prevent it from collapsing. Given such close give-and-take, it’s not a job that could be easily transferred to a machine.

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In the final steps, the sign is pumped full of gas — neon for red or argon for blue — and sealed. Other colors are achieved by coating the inside of the tubes with colored powders. (Unless you want brown; that’s not an option.)

 

Juan and Ina Macias, Paul’s parents, met in California after both immigrated to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, in the mid-’70s. His mom used a handful of silver dollars Paul had received as a birthday present to buy gas to drive to a job interview at a neon factory. She was hired, and shortly thereafter, so was his dad. They went to work assembling neon beer signs — this was the ’80s, after all. “Every day, it was Budweiser, Budweiser, Budweiser,” Paul says.

Ina immediately had her eye on bending. Though most of the men at the factory had doubts — “They would say, ‘You are a woman. You’re not going to know how to bend,’” says Paul — she learned quickly. Juan also became a bender. Because the beer industry’s demand was so high, Juan and Ina started an independent operation in their garage in 1985. This is when Paul got his first taste of neon.

Business outgrew the garage, and the family opened Paul’s Neon Signs #1. While still in California, HBO contacted the shop to create a tiny neon sign to accompany a “roach motel” in a commercial, and the same production company hired them to help recreate the Hard Rock guitar sign in miniature for the movie Con Air.

The family started its move to Las Vegas in the early 2000s. “My parents thought maybe we should open a shop in Vegas because there is so much neon here,” Paul says. An uncle came out first, followed by Paul, and Paul’s Neon Signs #2 was born. His parents eventually closed the shop in California and relocated, too. Technically, Juan and Ina own #2, but Paul plans to open his own sign operation — Paul’s Neon Signs #3, of course.

 

“The sign business has changed a lot since I moved here,” Paul says. Indeed, the sign industry has changed radically since what are thought to be the first neon signs in the United States promoted a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. As with many technologies, cheaper and easier alternatives, such as LEDs, became available. “When I first moved here, people were still using neon, even inside channel letters, but now everyone is using LED.” (And, despite the name, Paul’s Neon Signs also creates LED signs — indeed, pretty much every type of sign you can imagine.)

Several neon-only shops have closed, and not every sign shop can do neon; this is good for Paul and his family. They get more orders for neon signs, and other sign shops outsource neon work to them. Ronnie Vannucci, the drummer for The Killers, ordered a neon sign for his father’s funeral from Paul’s Neon Signs #2. Paul also repaired the flickering “R” in the sign for Artifice Downtown and created the sign for the revival of the Starboard Tack.

“I don’t think it is going to ever completely die out,” he says. “A lot of people just love neon.”

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