Signs of An Era

The neon "diving girl" sign at the Starlite Motel in Mesa, before she toppled in an October windstorm. Photograph by Larry Lindahl

Editor’s Note: For photographer Larry Lindahl, Mesa’s famed diving girl sign was both an iconic remnant of a time gone by and a symbol of a meaningful relationship with his father. Sadly, she toppled during a windstorm in October 2010. Restoration efforts are currently underway. Here, Lindahl shares his personal reflections about the sign.

Dad and I watched the diving girl sail down from the neon sign into water of wavy, blue neon. Over and over again, her blonde hair, tan body, and green one-piece swimsuit would light up at the top of the sign like a 1950s Jantzen ad. She would first appear gracefully folded at the waist, blink out, light up again straight as an arrow, blink out, and then reappear splashing into neon water with perfectly pointed fingertips.

Sure, we probably both fantasized of the sign artist’s curvaceous model, but it was the handcrafted bending of neon tubes, the engineering of the sheet metal, and the electrician’s circuitry that held something far deeper for us.

The beacon for the Starlite Motel soared above old U.S. Highway 60 in Mesa, the once-popular route to Phoenix, now bypassed by the freeway system. I remember on that warm evening, back in 1992, how I pointed out the sign painter’s brush strokes in the diving girl’s weathering patina. Dad talked about the sequencing of lights and the work in the vertical stack of big, block-letters spelling “MOTEL,” the reason for the eye-catching marvel of engineering in the first place.

Dad was in the neon sign business in Seattle for 25 years. We didn’t know when this bathing beauty might make her final dive, when her neon lights might go dark, or that she would crash to the ground in a windstorm 18 years later.

During World War II, Dad flew in bomber raids over Germany, and when he came home, he became a sheet metal worker who made neon signs. At the sign shop, a company artist would sketch a unique design for each client. Then, it was my dad’s job to build the custom curves and angles by cutting, bending, and fastening sheet metal into the over-sized structural box. This two-sided housing became the backdrop for the sign painter and glass bender, and where the electrician hid his wires, transformers, and circuitry.

Dad hadn’t worked on the diving girl sign, but found it after he retired, when my parents began staying winters in Mesa as snowbirds. The evening I was with my dad, I began to set up my camera and tripod beneath the glow of neon. We watched the gas-filled tubes shine ever more intensely against a twilight sky brushed with pink clouds. I carefully repositioned my tripod taking more photos as he witnessed me in my element.

Dad had finished his working years cutting, bending and fitting air conditioning ducts into buildings. It was hard work for his aging body, and he came home tired and stiff from crawling around in tight spaces.

The boom years of the neon sign business didn’t make it through the 1970s. Once seen as a symbol of a modern era, neon signs began to be viewed as tacky, garish, and tawdry. The handmade signs reminded civic leaders of the past, and they wanted to be moving into the future. With neon falling out of favor and becoming out-regulated in many cities, vacuum-formed plastic signs moved in as the preferred look. Coming out of a mold, each sign looked the same. Unique craftsmanship was overtaken by uniformity.

The sign company Dad worked for moved to cheaper real estate, on the other side of the state, in the early-1970s. My parents stayed put in the home they would own for fifty years, where they had added additional bedrooms, and dug in the garden that fed our family.

In his prime, Dad had helped build two of the best-known neon landmarks in Seattle. For the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of the city’s two major newspapers, his company built a 30-foot neon globe. The P-I name and motto revolved in eight-foot tall neon-red letters, divided by large white stars, around the gigantic globe with neon-green continents overlaid with neon-blue lines of longitude and latitude. A neon-gold eagle, wings stretched to the sky, signified the daily paper’s coverage of the world.

In 2009 the Seattle P-I became one of the latest big city newspapers to shut down their presses. And from across the country, a color photo of the P-I globe that Dad proudly helped build, was featured in the story about the closure in the New York Times.

Dad also helped build another neon landmark. Rainier Beer was a popular local beer before small breweries were hip. His sign company built the colossal neon-red “R” that once towered over the brewery building beside Seattle’s downtown I-5 freeway. But times change, and with a history of over 100 years, the company closed, and the building sold. New owners, with respect for the iconic red “R,” donated the sign to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. So, my blue-collar dad now has work in a museum.

Dad and I had a rough relationship at times, but on that warm desert evening that we watched the woman performing her neon dive, we stood and silently admired each other. I saw him as a proud neon sign maker. He saw me as a passionate photographer. We watched the neon girl dive one more time, and then silently drove back to my parents’ retirement community. I saw my dad and his work a little more clearly after that evening.

A few years later we said our final goodbye, and it was another silent moment. He looked me in the eye with a tender love I had rarely witnessed. I stood in the door of his hospital room after celebrating his 82nd birthday, and we knew. We knew we wouldn’t see each other ever again, and with his trembling hand he waved goodbye. My dad, the neon sign maker, sheet metal worker, and World War II veteran, was waving goodbye from his generation to my generation.

He held honor in the fact that he had flown on his last B-17 bomber mission on July 4th, our country’s Independence Day, the day we celebrate our freedom and its inherent responsibility. It was 1944, and he had safely returned to Kimbolton Air Base in England after his last raid into enemy air space over Nazi Germany. He was lucky. Nearly 4,750 of the infamous B-17 bombers were lost in combat — shot down by Luftwaffe fighters or shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns. He had beaten the one-in-three odds of his plane not making it home.

Photograph by Larry Lindahl

In his life, my dad showed me the strength of a man willing to die for his country and a worker who enjoyed the engineering challenges of crafting neon signs. But his spirit had traveled as far as it could go. He died of Parkinson’s disease on March 6, 2004. That summer we scattered his ashes on the slopes of Mount Rainier. Standing in the wilderness meadow, I cupped my hands together holding his ashes, and with deep respect, flung them straight into the sky, for his one last flight.

— Larry Lindahl

10 Comments

Filed under Et Cetera, In YOUR Words, Vintage AZ

10 responses to “Signs of An Era

  1. Beautiful story, wonderful feelings and a nice way to remember family! Photographs are excellent, as usual! 🙂

  2. Andi Steinberg

    What a wonderful tribute to your father, told with dignity and honesty. the photo of The Neon Girl is gorgeous.
    best wishes,
    andi

  3. Pingback: The Diving Girl sign at the Starlite Motel — R Scott Jones

  4. Wayne Thompson

    A great story. I too was in the 8th Air corps and I was also based at Kimbolton Castle ( 379th bomb grp. ).I flew my last mission in April,1945!! What an amazing coincidence !

  5. Wayne Thompson

    I am interested in any follow up!

  6. jim sutherland

    Thank you for the memory… My father was a salesman of mobile home’s for 30 years; East mesa and apache junction is where many of those years (60’s and 70’s) were spent along the “trail” . My father would take me to work durring summer breaks and we would drive up and down the apache trail looking at all of the uniqe buildings and thier signs, the starlite was always one of his favorites. Thank you for the reminder of a great childhood memory with my father….

  7. Trudy Oele

    I am wondering if this is the same Motel I stayed at as a child in about 1953. I thought it was on VanBuren the main east-west road and the name Starlite sounds so familiar to me. It was a small green cement block motel when we were there but I think more in Phoenix than in Mesa. If you could send me the address I might be able to pinpoint it better. We have visited the area last year and again this year and tried to remember some of the places I saw way back in the 50’s when my parents spent the month of Jan. there every year. But everything has changed so much that the only still familiar sight to me is Camelback Mt.

    • Completed in 1958, the Starlite Motel is still in business today. It’s located at 2710 East Main Street. That’s just west of Lindsay Road on the north side of Main Street.

  8. Thanks to Larry Lindahl for his eloquent essay about the Diving Lady. Since her fall last October, she has generated many fond reminiscences of what she has meant to travelers and residents.
    The Mesa Preservation Foundation, a non-profit corporation, dedicated to “preserving Mesa’s past and to being a powerful advocate for maintaining the history of the East Valley and Arizona,” is leading the effort to restore the Diving Lady’s nightly plunges.
    One of the figures is now repaired. It is on display at Fiesta Mall, Level 2 near the Macy’s entrance.
    Plans are underway for an October 5 re-installation and lighting ceremony on the 1st anniversary her fall.
    $65,000 is required to repair and restore the Diving Lady. Nearly 1/3 of the money needed has been raised through individual contributions. To follow the progress of her restoration and to learn more about how you can help, visit the MPF at http://mesapreservationfoundation.org/ or on Facebook at Mesa Preservation Foundation.

    • Guadalupe Chavez

      It is nice to see it up and working again. It is a beautiful work of art. Paul Augustus Millet was the original designer and manufacturer of that beautiful Diving Lady. Paul was born in Mesa in 1919 and spent much of his life as a sign designer ,building his own sign company in the 1940’s which bore his name. Many signs are still standing and considered part of the historic landmarks of this state. He was also a veteran of World War II,having served in the Armed Forces, receiving many commendations, including the Purple Heart. Passing away at the age of 87 here in Mesa
      on December 5,2007.

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