- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Consider the B in the cursive version of the Budweiser logo, the one that’s got that swoopy tail that whips itself into an oval on the left side of the consonant’s spine. It’s hard enough to draw on a bar napkin. Now imagine making it backward out of molten glass.

Shawn Nothnagel, 41, was tasked with this job last month, and there’s hardly anyone left in Lincoln qualified to try it. Nothnagel is a neon bender - the neon bender, really - at Nebraska Sign Company, that was once called Nebraska Neon.

The word “NEON” used to cover half of the shop’s storefront, and the entryway to the office remains a raised platform from when customers once stepped upon the base of the “O” in the company’s logo to get through the door.

Inside Nebraska Sign Company, there’s a wall of black-and-white photos featuring a collage of neon signs - the Tastee Inn, the StarShip 9 Theatre, the Cornhusker Hotel - burned in longtime Lincoln residents’ memories, fabricated at the shop during the light source’s heyday.

But the company’s name changed along with the technology used to illuminate most of the signs the staff designs, builds and installs throughout the area, the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/2neFC1W ) reported.

“Although we still create and repair neon, we have embraced the longevity and power savings that new LED lighting options provide,” Nebraska Sign’s website states.

If it’s not located in the Haymarket - where the Lincoln Haymarket Development Corporation maintains design standards meant to give the district a retro, historic vibe - odds are high that any newly lit business signage is going to be of the LED variety as opposed to neon.

And odds are even higher that if a neon piece was commissioned at Nebraska Sign Company, Nothnagel was the one who shaped it.

In the Haymarket, his work beams on the signs outside Buzzard Billy’s, Yowie’s Lodge and Leadbelly, among others. He’s repaired all kinds of longtime Lincoln neon light displays, from the massive Meier’s Cork and Bottle piece on 13th and South to the big B.F. Goodrich sign above T.O. Haas on 24th and O (you have to crawl inside that one to finish the job — not fun, he said).

And, yes, he also has fixed the dancing neon lady outside the Night Before Lounge.

The labor-intensive job hasn’t changed much, said Nothnagel’s predecessor, Kevin Potter, who spent 25 years as a bender before going on to become a job estimator at Nebraska Sign. When he started out, though, he said, “it was between a 40- and 60-hour-a-week job - all new (signs).”

And that was before “Miami Vice” came on TV and blew things up even more.

Since Nothnagel started at Nebraska Sign Company about a decade ago, though, it’s rare that he spends more than 15 hours of his working week in the corner of the shop devoted to creating neon pieces. And for the most part, the pieces he creates or repairs are bound for basements, bars and rec rooms.

“Budweiser signs, man, people love ‘em,” Nothnagel said as he got to work on the calligraphic B.

Surrounding him were several controlled open flames, a handful of neon signs in various states of repair and a couple soup can-sized containers of acrylic black paint he uses to darken the neon tubing between the parts of the sign meant to shine.

“Used to be back in the day, you had a big tub of it,” Nothnagel said. “But we just don’t do that much neon.”

Above the work space hung a transformer that can power a city block. He uses it to shoot high voltage into nearly-completed neon pieces after he’s bent them, welded electrodes to their ends, vacuumed and heated out impurities and pumped in either neon gas for red light or a neon-argon gas for blue light.

“I actually have to use the periodic table in here,” Nothnagel said. “Never would I have ever thought I would use that.”

But first, to the drawing board. The familiar beer logo had been traced backward upon a table-sized sheet of Nonbestos flame-resistant paper draped across Nothnagel’s workspace.

“We do everything backwards, which is a real pain when I’m dyslexic already,” he said.

He started with a narrow 4-foot long glass tube, red in color, and began to chalk dividing marks upon the places he planned to eventually bend it into a letter.

“It’s sometimes 10 steps ahead, know what I mean?” he said as he charted the course.

A ribbon burner roared behind him. Asked the temperature to turn a piece of glass to wet spaghetti, he answered, “Hot.” And then he began to rotate the glass over top of it.

He wore no gloves, he said, because you need to be able to feel when the glass is getting malleable before it gets completely melty, a difference of seconds that’s worth the slightly elevated risk of a second-degree burn.

“With this glass especially, you’ve gotta keep going - when it cools down, it cracks,” Nothnagel said. “It’s all about time in the fire, repetition.”

He had a blowhose in the corner of his mouth, with the other end of it affixed to the open end of the glass tube, navigating air out of and into it as he shaped it into the king of B’s.

“Well, there’s a B,” he said 13 bends later.

All he had to do after that was bend the rest of the “udweiser,” fashion a royal flush of diamonds out of glass and fuse it all together to complete the project.

Shawn, wouldn’t you say it’s the most frustrating, rewarding job, you’ve ever done?” Potter asked him on another morning as he repaired another beer sign, this one a Corona.

Nothnagel, blowhose in mouth, made a noise and nodded his head in ways that both suggested “yes” as he formed a green-colored glass tube into the shape of a palm frond.

“There are parts of me that misses doing this, but doing repairs - not at all,” said Potter, who recently came out of neon retirement to make the new Lazlo’s sign in the Haymarket.

Potter said he got about three weeks of instruction from the Alabaman who held the job before him before he was on his own. It took years of practice to get a feel for the craft, he said.

“One out of four pieces made it through,” Potter said, and nodded to his right. “The rest went against the wall.”

That wall is painted black now.

As challenging as the job is, he and Nothnagel agreed that the more unique the piece requested, the more interesting and challenging it is to create.

“I don’t know too many jobs where you can write with light,” said Potter, who also holds an art degree.

The red-and-blue neon Zoo Bar sign in the club’s storefront is a favorite of Potter‘s, a collaboration between him and the late Chet Lee, a designer at Nebraska Neon - “He designed it and I bent it up,” Potter said.

“But as far as what’s still out there, it’s less and less.”

Nothnagel’s most recent ornate efforts were made for private display. He recently completed one bound for a rural Nebraska cabin that merged his neon-bending skills with renderings created by Nebraska Sign Company’s art director, Rachel Schoeneck. The end result was a sign featuring a guy and gal who look a little like the swinging cats on the Starlite Lounge logo, one raising a martini glass, the other a stogie, on opposite sides of a tiki god. The cabin’s nickname, “The Darkside Lounge,” glowed in neon lettering shaped by Nothnagel and based off Schoeneck’s design.

And that was nothing compared to the suite of three replicas of some of Omaha’s most-iconic neon restaurant signs - the neon guitarist outside La Casa Pizzeria, the snazzy red-coated flutist from the now-closed Piccolo’s steakhouse and the neon-lassoed Bronco’s Burgers cowboy encouraging passersby to “Serv urself and save” - that now grace the basement of an Omahan who last year commissioned them for four figures.

Nothnagel said he enjoys the collaborative efforts with Schoeneck in part because he’s a terrible at drawing.

“Your artistry comes through in bending the glass, not drawing it out,” Nebraska Sign’s Ryan Haffey told him last month.

Haffey, a project manager at the business, said that the shop sometimes goes weeks without receiving an order for a neon sign as LEDs have become the go-to light source for businesses. They’ve added LED-lit messaging signs in front of numerous Lincoln locales and LED backlit signs outside of places like fire-spring and Issara. They’ve installed massive screens upon the face of the Lied Center for the Performing Arts and at the visual epicenter of the Railyard, The Cube.

They’re currently working on the three-story tall signage that will appear upon the side of Hudl’s new headquarters. Thanks to LED lighting, Haffey said, the logo will be able to change colors from its trademark orange to, say, a July 4 red-white-blue combo, a Husker game day red or an Arbor Day pine green. And if an LED sign goes dark, he said, it takes far less time to get it powered back on.

“For a business, they don’t want (the sign) ever to be down,” he said.

“Neon’s not that sort of beast,” Nothnagel said.

It’s an expensive, time-consuming investment to repair or create a neon sign. But those in Lincoln who’ve invested in them say they draw all kinds of interest.

“It’s tied to the ‘50s, really,” said John MacKichan, curator of the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed, where some 30 neon signs that once hung in garages or car dealerships decades ago, many of which were restored by Nothnagel, now illuminate the vintage motor vehicles on display at 599 Oakcreek Drive. MacKichan said that when Nothnagel or another Nebraska Sign Company staffer comes over to install one, museum staff gathers around the sign, waiting for it to flicker once more.

“We get compliments on it on a weekly basis,” said Kevin Meier, owner of Meier’s Cork and Bottle, which gets its classic sign serviced from Nebraska Sign. “People say how much they love the neon and how it has that old-school look.”

And as LED lighting has become de rigueur, an undercurrent of neon appreciators has joined some of Lincoln’s holdouts in bringing the dated glow back in recent years. It may not be 1984 again - a year when Potter installed a neon arc sculpture above a Lincoln teenager’s waterbed - but some shop owners in town are installing neon signage that says something beyond “OPEN.”

Pass by Goldenrod Pastries, at night, and the custom Nebraska-themed sign that owner Angela Garbacz ordered after about a year in business - the words “the good life” in cursive, and neon pink - irradiates the otherwise dim storefront. Go inside when it’s open, Garbacz said, and you’re likely to see someone taking a photo beneath that sign - or the neon “hot buns” one by the bathroom.

“It’s something that resonates with people (who live here),” Garbacz said of the “good life” sign. “And it’s very ‘Grammable.’”

When asked why she ordered a hot pink neon sign for her dive bar The Hot Mess, SaRena Fleet said, “Because they’re beautiful. The sign is the defining feature of the bar.”

As with Goldenrod’s neon signs, the Hot Mess one is oft-Instagrammed, Fleet said. She’s since added a neon “shoe repair” sign above the ATM. It’s on loan from Yia Yia’s basement.

Neither Potter nor Nothnagel are racking up LES bills with their personal collections. Potter made a glowing Green Bay Packers logo for his son, his daughter’s name, Caitlyn, in lights for her and a neon heart with a bouquet of roses for his wife. Nothnagel’s got a retro Denver Broncos sign, a refurbished Fat Tire beer sign that someone was going to throw away, and one he made from scratch in honor of the jam band he’s seen over 40 times, a neon daisy with the word Panic (as in Widespread Panic) in the middle of it. Both of them admitted that some of their pieces are currently installed in closets.

Like Potter, Nothnagel said what he enjoys more than owning his work is seeing pieces he spent hours crafting at Nebraska Sign Company on display around town.

“I like to go around town, say, ‘That’s mine. I made that,” Nothnagel said. “My daughter gets sick of hearing it.”


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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