Food for Thought

From cactus to cockroach, Houston's neon signs of a time gone by

From cactus to cockroach, Houston's neon signs of a time gone by

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The big prickly cactus sign had so many fans that when the record store moved over to Portsmouth Street residents started a petition to keep the sign where it was. No Depression
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Would the crawfish at Ragin Cajun on Richmond Avenue taste just as good if there wasn’t a giant mudbug on the roof? Of course they would, but wouldn’t you miss the bug? Ragin Cajun/Facebook
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And for anyone missing the old Roll-N bar sign with its neon martini glass that graced the shopping center on San Felipe Street, eagle-eyed reader Kathy Heard of OPEN Restaurant Design spotted it strapped to a chain link fence in Midtown. Courtesy Photo
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Still on the hunt for the iconic Felix Mexican Restaurant sign.  Courtesy of RoadsideArchitecture.com
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I'm still on the hunt for the iconic Felix Mexican Restaurant sign. A commenter on the original post says the sign is fine and is in storage, but Uchi’s PR rep in Austin still wasn’t sure just where it was when I contacted her last week. Or what the plans are for the sign.

But wherever the slumbering sombrero-wearing guy and his cactus are, it’s evident that a lot of Houstonians remember the sign and miss seeing it.

“People get passionate about these signs,” says David Bush, director of programs and information at Preservation Houston. “They were landmarks in the neighborhood, a part of people's pasts, and they are being recognized and preserved more and more. There’s even a museum now in Las Vegas for neon signs, they’re that popular.”

A case in point is the old Cactus Music sign at the Alabama Theater shopping center on the corner of Shepherd and West Alabama. The big prickly cactus sign had so many fans that when the record store moved over to Portsmouth Street residents started a petition to keep the sign where it was.

“And it worked,” says Bush. “That sign is still there.”

But Bush and Preservation Houston are still keeping an eye on the Alabama Theater pylon at the center. The theater opened in 1939 and stopped showing movies in 1983. The following year Bookstop moved in but kept the sign and much of the interior. When it moved out in 2009, Weingarten Realty Investors, the property owner, gutted much of the inside of the theater in preparation for a new tenant. Which we now know will be Trader Joe’s. Surely Joe’s will leave the sign intact. Hopefully.

“There just aren’t many of these signs left any more,” Bush says. “You just don’t see that kind of neon workmanship anymore.”

Not to mention that the city’s updated sign ordinance of 2009 prohibits a lot of these types of signs. Many iconic signs — like the Cactus Music and Felix signs — are grandfathered, but they often can’t be moved.

And this means that as these old businesses die out we’ll probably lose more and more of the old signs.

“Businesses don’t stay in business 40, 50 years anymore,” says Bush. “Or they move or change their image.”

Take Holder’s Pest Control, for example. When they moved in 2004 they took Bubba, an 8-by-16-foot neon cockroach, and put it in storage. But when the company rebranded this year the sign was “cut up and hauled off for recycling.”

“You wouldn’t think of people caring about a giant neon roach,” Bush says, “but they did.”

Would the crawfish at Ragin' Cajun on Richmond Avenue taste just as good if there wasn’t a giant mudbug on the roof? Of course they would, but wouldn’t you miss the bug?

“When you used to drive into the city there were tons of old neon motel signs but they’re pretty much all gone now,” Bush says. “Thousands of them across the countryside just disappeared. A lot of people think they are tacky, and I probably wouldn’t want to live next door to a blinking sign, but I think they’re pretty cool. And I miss them.”

For anyone missing the old Roll-N bar sign with its neon martini glass that graced the shopping center on San Felipe Street, eagle-eyed reader Kathy Heard of OPEN Restaurant Design spotted it strapped to a chain link fence in Midtown.

“That sign had probably been at our family’s shopping center for 40 years,” says Trey Melcher. His family built the Melcher Crossing center in 1960 and it wasn’t long before Joe Lee Thomas, who had a barbershop there, added the Roll-N. Thomas also acquired the Lone Star Saloon on Travis Street and when the Roll-N closed (the center was remodeled and the spot is now Melcher’s the Railyard Neighborhood Bar). Thomas moved the sign to the parking lot at the Lone Star.

“I heard it was down there,” Melcher says. “I told Joe Lee when we were remodeling that he could take the sign. I thought he would leave the pole so we could put up a new sign for the Railyard. But he didn’t. He just chopped it down and drove it off.”

For a look back at what Houston was like when neon signs ruled the night, check out this cool video from the University of Houston’s Digital Library. Warning: It may make you crave a cigarette and a cold martini.