- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006


Times Square real estate may be too pricey for the average tourist, but a few hundred bucks could score a piece of the area’s dazzling history.

Artkraft Strauss LLC — the company that built the famed smoking Camel billboard, six-story Coca-Cola displays and dozens of descending New Year’s Eve balls — is holding a garage sale as it downsizes in a post-neon age.

The collection includes the hand-drawn design for the Camel billboard, which emitted smoke rings every four seconds from 1941 to 1966; a marquee from the 1962 Broadway production of “The Sound of Music”; and a small neon likeness of the late comedian Bob Hope.

Artkraft Strauss made most of the huge, sparkling signs — known as spectaculars — that lit up Times Square throughout the 20th century.

However, since video feeds and computer graphics took hold of the outdoor advertising industry in the 1990s, the company has dwindled from more than 100 people to half a dozen.

Samuel T. Freeman & Co., a Philadelphia auction house, will auction a group of drawings, lights and neon signs on Thursday.

“It just seems like a good time,” says company President Tama Starr, whose grandfather and father ran the firm before her. “People are interested in this kind of artifact. It’s representative of an art form that is not much being made anymore.”

Most outdoor advertisements today are made of video or vinyl and are mass-produced for billboards around the world. By contrast, the spectaculars of yesteryear were unique.

Artkraft Strauss made a sign with Joan of Arc aflame for the 1948 premiere of the Ingrid Bergman film. Peanuts spilled onto Broadway from a 1930s-era Planters Peanuts ad. Bombshell Jayne Mansfield threw the switch to light a “Fly TWA” ad in 1956.

“All of the signs in Times Square were eccentric,” Miss Starr says. “They were one of a kind.”

The auction also features a drawing of the scripted Canadian Club logo that adorned the square from 1952 to 1977; a huge hot pink S, circa 1985, that marked a 42nd Street subway stop; and a model of the complex, 65-foot-high Coke display that proved the company’s crowning achievement when it debuted on Dec. 31, 1991.

Through the clever use of strobe lights, a mile of neon and nearly 60 miles of fiber-optic tubing, a sequence unfolded in which the cap on a Coke bottle popped off, a straw emerged, and the bottle slowly drained — all while a series of Coke logos cycled through in the background.

Such ads, with all their razzmatazz, screamed of New York’s place as the commercial and entertainment capital of the world.

“You can’t tell if it’s entertainment or people trying to sell you things. And maybe you don’t even care,” says Gregory Dreicer, curator of a recent show on the city’s illumination at the Museum of New York.

“Obviously, video has now taken over. But a lot of it is still about bright lights dazzling you and getting you to look up and see the corporate name.”

Most of the huge spectaculars had to be disassembled when they were taken down.

Individual letters from some memorable signs are included in the Artkraft Strauss sale, including the 8-foot red T from the Suntory Whisky sign that topped a stack of ads on 2 Times Square in the late 1980s and the small i from the Biography sign that overlooked Columbus Circle from 1998 to 2005.

Price estimates range from $1,500 for the sketch of the smoking Camel sign (which some consider the most famous sign in advertising history) to $2,000 for the Bob Hope profile and $15,000 for a model of the Coke display. A group of 12 New Year’s Eve ball light bulbs — the company directed the descent of the famed ball from 1907 to 1996 — is expected to fetch just a few hundred dollars.

“There’s no precedent for this sale. The market is untested,” says Brent Lewis of the Freeman company. “When the gavel falls, we’re all interested to see what happens.”

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