First phase of Tiffin Drive-In neon sign restoration is complete

Phase A of the project to restore the Tiffin Drive-In’s neon sign is now complete, and the finished portion of the new neon sign can be seen glowing after dusk in the same SR 53 location it stood at more than 50 years ago.

Current Tiffin Drive-In owners Rodney and Donna Saunders wished to thank all who have donated to the restoration project thus far in a release. They also made special note of a “generous grant from the White Family Foundation” which made the completion of Phase A possible, the release states.

Donna Saunders was also quick to mention the dedicated work put into the project by neon artist Michael Flechtner, a Tiffin native who now resides in California.

“He has been fantastic,” she said. “He has memories of this neon sign that I don’t have because I wasn’t around at the time.”

“He did the research, he did it all, really,” she said.

Flechtner completed the first section of the 60′ x 60′ neon sign Aug. 1. This initial phase involved the recreation of the left vertical “star banner” part of the sign, in likeness of the original design.

But the restoration has already been two years in the making. While the Saunders were putting together the Historic Drive-In Revitalization Fund to and fund raising for the project, Flechtner has been visiting local libraries to search for photographs in old editions of The Advertiser-Tribune, meeting with area residents involved with the theater’s past, and even digging in the dirt under the screen tower looking for shards of broken neon glass, Saunders said.

Flechtner, who grew up in Tiffin and graduated from Tiffin Columbian High School in 1970, said it was important to him to resurrect the original sign as closely as possible because his memories of the neon signs that used to dot Tiffin’s cityscape inspired an early love for the art form.

“Every summer my folks would put us in our pj’s on a Friday or Saturday night and load us into our Chevy wagon and head north on Route 53,” Flechtner said. “Depending on how dark it was when we got around the bend where the Dog ‘N’ Suds, Polar Bar and the Moose Lodge were, you could see this distinct neon line shining. It was the side of the screen tower at the Tiffin Drive a few miles ahead.

“I really didn’t care what movie was playing: for me, the big thrill was seeing the huge 60′ x 60′ neon display on the front of the screen tower. Seeing that baby fully lit when we turned right into the drive-in entrance was an incredible thrill,” he said.

Flechtner said The Ritz Theater also had a neon marquee that he found himself staring it anytime it was lit, and that these two large displays initiated his interest in the neon art form.

Flechtner completed a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture and painting at Columbus College of Art and Design and a master of fine arts degree at Wichita State University.

After attending a lecture by neon art pioneer Stephen Antonakos in art school, Flechtner said he was “hooked.”

“I hadn’t thought about neon being used as a an art medium before and here was this guy doing building-sized neon art installations!” he said.

“After making a trip to Los Angeles and discovering the Museum of Neon Art, I decided to learn how to make neon tubes. I found a guy in Salina, KS and spent six weeks with him learning how to make things glow,” he said.

Flechtner then moved to Los Angeles and got a job in a neon sign shop, where he could work on his own creations after working hours ended, he said.

“Bending glass tubing and putting gas into completed neon tubes is pretty much a Zen activity,” he said. “You have to be very focused to keep from kinking and breaking the glass tubing while in the fires.”

“Plus, you are dealing with high voltages, high vacuum, mercury, glass tubing, electrodes and rare gases, all those things that make for the perfect mad scientist experience.

“I just find going into the fire and making bend after bend a very soothing process,” he said.

Today, Flechtner’s neon art can be seen in public places in Tokyo, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, among many other places. Flechtner was also commissioned by the United States Postal Service to design a Forever stamp in 2011.

His neon “Celebrate!” Forever stamp is still available for purchase and use today, and the original neon display made for the stamp sits in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

“The curve of the word “Celebrate” in the Forever stamp I designed is a direct result of the curved “Tiffin Drive In” lettering from the original screen tower design,” he said.

Flechtner’s neon has managed to weave itself into his hometown’s fabric before the drive-in project as well.

Flechtner returned to exhibit his art at Tiffin University in fall 2013, and installed a neon dragon at Tiffin University in January 2014. Another neon creation of Flechtner’s was donated to Tiffin Columbian High School by a classmate of his, also in 2014.

But restoring the Tiffin Drive-In’s sign is his largest-scale neon project in Tiffin to date.

“My memory of the neon was pretty clear but because of the historical nature of the restoration and my background in the fine arts, professionalism dictated that I needed to get it as close as possible to the original design,” he said.

“It turned out that all the tube supports were all still pretty much where they were left when the original neon was removed about 50 years ago,” he said. “This gave me a partial guide. The high voltage transformers were also still mounted up inside the screen tower.”

Though the supports for the neon tubes were still on the screen tower, the hunt for images of the original sign provided some challenge.

“I did end up going through 2 years of microfiched Advertiser-Tribune editions from the mid fifties at the Tiffin-Seneca Public Library looking for photos of the Tiffin Drive-In neon after the screen was repaired from tornado damage,” he said.

“Finally I received two photos from Sister Jane Francis in Tiffin, whose father, Vincent Omlor, had designed and installed the original neon,” he said. “They were black and white shots of shirtless men on 40-foot extension ladders installing the neon. The photos clearly show the details of two-thirds of the neon design.

“But no luck on finding photos that showed the central “T” of the design, after lots of calls and even offering a reward for photos of it,” he said.

“Finally, about a year after that, Donna Saunders received colored photos of the neon lit at night after a fund raising event from Mary Condello, the daughter of the original owner of the Tiffin Drive-In,” he said. “And then we were off and running!”

Flechtner was able to determine the lengths of the original tubes and used a crane to reach the top of the screen tower to take measurements of the star pattern at the top of the left banner. He transcribed his measurements on the spot and began constructing the neon tubes for the banner.

“Luckily for me, having the original design made things pretty easy: I just matched what the photos and tube supports showed me,” he said.

“As far as installing the glass tubes, you just take your time and make sure there is space between tubes so that they don’t touch, which helps prevent breakage. Then I installed point-to-point wiring between the tubes with insulating caps on every connection just like the original,” he said.

“I have been replacing the old tube supports with an updated, non-slip version, and I’m replacing all the neon transformers with up-to-date versions of the original with safe circuitry built into them,” he said. “The interesting thing with neon is that everything is still done the same way it has been done for the past 100 years – some materials have changed and animation is now electronic instead of mechanical, and better insulation on the high voltage wiring is available, but the process is still much the same.”

Asked about his process and concerns with accuracy in recreating the original sign, Flechtner called himself something of an “archaeologist.”

“I wanted to know what had been there before, and I was willing to do everything possible to make sure I was putting it back together as close as possible to the original,” he said.

The neon sign restoration is coordinated by the Historic Drive-In Revitalization Fund, a non-profit organization with the mission to “restore critical one-of-a-kind assets to drive-in theaters serving rural communities,” according to the release from Saunders.

The fund is now collecting donations for the neon sign’s second phase, or Phase B, which involves creating another vertical star banner on the right side of the screen tower, a “mirror image” of the one that Flechtner made in August, Saunders said. This phase will also require $10,000 for completion, just as Phase A did, she said.

For more information about the Tiffin Drive-In’s neon sign restoration project or to make a donation, visit the restoration fund’s website at historicdriveinrevitalizationfund.com.

To learn more about Flechtner’s neon art and to view selections, visit his website at flektro.com.