WGN SPECIAL COVERAGE: SUV drives into Woodfield Mall

From theaters to dive bars, neon lights help make Chicago shine

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

Neon lights shine from the front of grand theaters and dive bars alike, and after a heyday in the 80s they're seeing a new resurgence. Get a look behind the glass with Fishtail Neon's Tom Brickler - in his own words: 

In 1981 I came out here, foam cushion as my bed, folding lounge chair as my living room couch, in a Chevy Vega. I started working in a rasta reggae bar and I got a job at a neon sign shop on Halsted and Buckingham and really never looked back.

I grew up in Rochester, upstate New York, and I remember seeing all these old neon signs for Genesee Beer and all these old beer companies. I had some beer cans and some beer trays and things, but always the holy grail was a neon sign.

My first sign was a Utica Club neon sign that my dad set up for me, and I was looking at this thing with all the colors and all the glow that it had and he gave me great advice, he told me: don't touch that thing because you can really get hurt by it. And it's really good advice. In this business right here, what I've learned is it's got really three kinds of dangers: gettin' burned, getting cut and getting zapped.

So you know I've had my own business for over 30 years. I've really just got two guys that really kinda help me out. Both guys have been with me for over 15 years, and we've got the stuff down pretty good.

There was a heyday in the eighties and that was the point where I had just begun my own business, and then it kinda got to a point where the popularity decreased a bit, and you know what, we're kind of the last guy standing.

We were doing, you know, laundry mats, beeper stores, dollar stores. I wanted to do artistic things. But you know what, I realized the artists were few and far behind at that point, and making your living at art is a difficult thing to do.

A collection of signs sits in the basement of Fishtail Neon

I'm kinda motivated by old neon clocks, old porcelain signs, things that I could never afford if I was going to buy them, but I'm able to get them and restore them. A lot of funeral homes and things, you know, they all had neon back in the day.

The first neon signs were like in the late 20s, early 30s, they used the neon gas, and the gas itself is kind of like this bright orange red that you see. When they isolated this color, they knew they had some kind of advertising value here that was gonna stick around. But 75 to 80 percent of signs now have argon blue gas in them, but the neon business because it's so bright and so strong it's called neon.

Tom Brickler shows a neon funeral home clock from the 1930s

We draw an actual pattern out of what it is we're gonna make, when we bend the glass the process is in reverse, so the pattern is laid out backwards. You fill it full of gas, you paint the sections out, the portions you don't want to be seen. You mount it on a board or some kind of a backing or a frame of some kind so it can all come together you put a transformer with it so you can plug it in and it can work.

A lot of times we walk into a place, we light up this beautiful sign. There's a really great feeling when all the sudden somebody has this business that they've started, that's their dream, and they're going to do the one thing that 's different, that maybe nobody's done in their business.

We've done some great stuff. FAO Schwartz on Michigan Avenue, five floors of neon, to I was commissioned to put over a 100 feet of ruby red neon in the lobby of the Hotel Zachary. I have decked some of these places out with so much neon that everybody's kind of a fan of it.

In my new place, in Hollywood Neon, is named that way because Hollywood Park is just down the street, and Hollywood has been very good to me. I wanted to open up a place where TV shows and movies could take a look at some old signs. I've probably done 40 motion pictures and 30 different TV shows.

This is what it's really about for me, to be able to put together a collection of old neon signs, of old vintage signs mainly from before I was born.

I'll see parents walking their children just by my store, and it will be the kids that stop, that are looking at them, that are so fascinated by the  colored light. There's really nothing that can really replace the neon and hand-bent sign, where you've got just a pure glow, and you've got the colors that kind of come together, and the craftsmanship.

You can't replace these pure forms of color that you see in neon lights.

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.