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'Liquid fire': Kern County Museum more than doubles its neon collection in one year

Early last year, the Kern County Museum’s neon sign collection consisted of eight, maybe nine signs.

A respectable number, but one that was about to grow.

One year later, the collection has expanded to 22, including some of Bakersfield's most iconic signs.

"We have three signs left to restore and hang in the next couple of weeks," said museum Director Mike McCoy, who has referred to the popular and nostalgic gas-lighted commercial art as "liquid fire."

The Andre's Drive-in sign — McCoy calls it "a monster" for its size, weight and overall impact — is one of the newer additions. The new Floyd's sign also means a lot to McCoy because it's a name that has been around for so long, it surely must bring back memories for countless locals.

And this is why the museum director has focused so heavily on the museum's neon sign collection: Memories.

"Every one of the signs in our collection triggers memories," he said. Like a special scent, or an old song, the neon signs take people back to sharing a French burger, fries and a cherry Coke beneath the glowing Andre's sign, renting your first tux at Saba's men's wear or  dipping into a hot-fudge sundae at Dewar's.

"The Andre's sign was three hours away from the scrap yard, three hours away from vanishing forever," McCoy recalled. "I got woke!"

Brenna Charatsaris, events director at the Kern County Museum, says if there was a silver lining over the past year, it is how the lack of customers during the pandemic opened up an opportunity for non-stop maintenance and restoration of exhibits — and the dramatic expansion of the museum's Neon Courtyard.

"Mike has been extra-driven," she said.

Charatsaris is developing plans for a public unveiling of the expanded Neon Courtyard called "Get Lit."

"We're hoping for summer, but it might be fall depending on public health guidelines," she said.

According to McCoy, local interest in neon exploded following The Californian's coverage of the recovery and restoration of the Amestoy's sign about two years ago.

The closure of iconic restaurants like Sinaloa also raised concerns that unless some historic artifacts are saved, memories would vanish along with the businesses.

The museum's Director of Maintenance Eddie Valdez has started restoring a Sinaloa's sign in the Kern County Museum's maintenance shop. It's in a state of some disrepair.

Valdez pulled out several intact pigeon skeletons from the interior of the sign. And other leavings he'd rather not discuss.

"When I was done, I told Mike I needed to go home and take a shower," he said, laughing.

The Harold's Autos sign and the neon orange and Irish green "Carburetor Repair" sign from Medieros auto service are two recent acquisitions displayed, not in the Neon Courtyard, but in the adjacent Raymond A. Watson Transportation Exhibit.

The Jolly Kone sign, which hasn't yet had its neon restored, was rescued from a drive-in restaurant that stood for decades at Belle Terrace and Wible Road before it was demolished due to nearby freeway construction.

The vertical Buick sign was a serious find, McCoy said.

But McCoy says many individuals deserve credit and recognition for the dramatic growth of the sign collection.

He lauded former museum director Carola Rupert Enriquez for recognizing early on the value of a neon collection.

"I give her 100 percent credit for having the vision," he said.

And those who have donated neon signs — like Amestoy's Mike Miller — or provided funding for their restoration are museum angels, he said.

Frank Hinmon, who now lives in Nevada, nearly doubled the museum's collection with a donation of several mint-condition neons, most with an automotive theme.

And Mary Trichell, former owner of W.A. Thompson, the local Coors distributor, has been another benefactor who has supported the museum behind the scenes for years.

And Paul Andre covered the cost of restoring the Andre's sign, a godsend for the museum, McCoy said.

And so many more.

"I guess it comes down to this," McCoy said.

"If you're driving around and you see an old, rusty neon sign, you'd better call me."

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

Coronavirus Cases widget

  • Positive Cases Among Kern Residents: 159,023

  • Deaths: 1,841

  • Recovered and Presumed Recovered Residents: 151,858 

  • Percentage of all cases that are unvaccinated: 91.90

  • Percentage of all hospitalizations that are unvaccinated: 92.54

  • Source: Kern County Public Health Services Department

Updated: 12/7/21