Mechanical Signs (page 1)

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The photos on these two pages were moved here from my Signs section to accompany an article which I've written for the Society for Commercial Archeology's Journal magazine.

The pages provide information about these still-existing signs with motorized panels more formally known as mechanical signs. These signs caught the attention of motorists and pedestrians with physical movement rather than animated neon. These signs are incredibly rare and special. Only a handful of them are still operating.

Bel Shore Motel
Lordsburg, NM
2008: 2012:

The Bel Shore Motel has been closed for many years but these signs remain. The paint on the pole sign panels have faded enough to reveal that the panels were used by Farmers & Merchants Bank originally. However, the letters on this side of the sign look more like "BUNK" than "BANK". For more examples of the light-studded balls on top of the Bel Shore Motel pole sign, see this page.

The Bel Shore Motel's bellhop sign was repainted sometime between 2008 and 2012. However, it appears that his face details were never painted on one side. [map]

These bellhop signs were developed in the late 1940s and patented in 1951 by the National Animated Sign Co. of Hot Springs, AR. These signs were about seven feet tall and featured a waving arm. A light was installed behind the waving arm's hand to indicate when a motel had vacancies or whether a business was open. The company produced many variations of these signs including doormen, chefs, gas station attendants, cowboys, Indians, black butlers, Dutch girls, waitresses, and clowns. The only other bellhop signs like this one in Lordsburg are in public or private sign collections. There was a bellhop sign installed in 1947 on top of the Park Motel sign in Sparks, NV. That motel and sign are long gone. Terry's Turf Club in Cincinnati, OH had eight of these waving signs. They all had the National Animated Sign Co. tag on the sides of the signs' cans.

Filling Station [gone]
Savanna, IL
Takhoma Burger
[in storage]
Wichita, KS
private collection
Albuquerque, NM
Stables Cafe
Guthrie, OK

Isaack Restaurant
Junction, TX
2011: 2018:
The Filling Station convenience store had what appeared to be another sign from the National Animated Sign Co. It had been painted as two different fisherman on each side. I don't know what the original paint job looked like. There was still a bulb in the man's hand but I doubt the arm still moved up and down. These photos are from 2009. The sign was still there in 2015 but gone by 2018.

Takhoma Burger opened in 1951. This sign may have been installed then. This sign must have been produced by the National Animated Sign Co. I have seen photos of an identical waitress sign produced by them. However, there is no longer the sign company's tag on the side of the Takhoma sign. Like the company's other waving signs, the waitress' arm moved up and down. The restaurant relocated but this sign remained in place for many years. In 2010, the sign was removed and put in storage by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2. [photo thanks Glenda Campbell]

The sign in a private collection in Albuquerque appears to be a black bellhop like the one in Lordsburg shown above.

The airbrushed paint on the bellhop sign in Guthrie sign might be close to original. I have seen enough rusting, vintage waver signs with airbrushed panels to make me believe that's how they looked from the beginning. Most of these signs have been repainted to make them more appealing to sign collectors. There are also reproduction "waver" signs, even with fake sign tags. This Guthrie sign has a National Animated Sign Co. tag on the side of the can. Although it has block letters rather than script, I think it is authentic.

The Isaack Restaurant sign also appears to be one of the National Animated Sign Co. bellhop variations. The restaurant opened in 1950. The pole sign and the waving chef were installed a few years later. The chef's arm and the light behind his hand haven't operated since the mid-1960s. The signs were repainted in 2012. There was another one of these chef signs in Roswell, NM. [map]

Philip Morris Bellhop [gone]
Fennimore, WI
This Philip Morris Bellhop statue was strapped to sign pole in front of the Three B's (Beer Bait & Bargains) store when this photo was taken in 2007. By 2011, the bellhop was gone. These statues were mass-produced but are very rare now. I don't know of any on public display. The statue's motorized arm moved up and down originally. I don't know when these statues were built. Philip Morris was using bellhops for cigarette advertising and signs before the 1930s. My guess is that these signs were built in the 1950s or 1960s.

Kalbach Oil
Menlo, IA


The Kalbach Oil sign was built by the Nebraska Neon Sign Company of Lincoln, NE in 1936. The 12.5-foot-tall "Menlo Man" represents a service station attendant. He is outlined with neon and his mechanical arm moves up and down as if he is saluting. The sign acted as beacon for airplane pilots. When the sign was restored in 2008, the original tin panels were replaced with aluminum replicas. The neon was also replaced at that time. However, the neon hadn't operated since the late 1940s. The diamond shaped sign was also replaced with the round White Rose sign. The sign which hangs from the man's arm was also added. The Kalbach Oil station, originally a White Rose station, was built in 1934. In 1951, Cities Service took over the station and wanted the sign removed. It stayed but the wiring inside was removed to prevent the Menlo Man from waving. Later, the station sold Mobil gas. The Kalbachs operated a sign shop here after the station closed. However, the shop has closed now. The sign is still turned on for the Christmas holiday season and some other times randomly throughout the year. For more, see this video. [top row, middle photo thanks Glenda Campbell] [map]

Vegas Vic & the Pioneer Club
Las Vegas, NV
The Pioneer Club opened in 1942 and closed in 1995. The building now houses a souvenir shop. It was best known for this Vegas Vic cowboy sign. In the late 1940s, prior to Vegas Vic, The Pioneer Club had a neon scaffold sign on the roof across the street that included a cowboy's head. The cowboy had an animated neon thumb and neon text that said "Here It Is! The Famous Pioneer Club". That sign was demolished at some point.

The Vegas Vic cowboy character with cigarette and thumbs-up was based on advertising used by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. The cowboy also appeared on the Nevada Motel sign in 1950. That sign is now in The Neon Museum collection.

This Vegas Vic sign was designed by Patrick Denner from Salt Lake City. It was installed in 1951 at a cost of $25,000. At the time, it was one of the most expensive signs in Las Vegas. The sign is 40 feet tall. Vegas Vic had a waving arm and a moving cigarette which blew smoke rings. His other arm moved slightly at the elbow. He also had a voicebox enabling him to say "Howdy Pardner" every 15 minutes. Vic hasn't spoken since 2006 and his arms which bent at the elbows stopped moving in 1991. However, his neon cigarette still moves up and down and his eyes still flash on and off as if he's winking. Until the 1960s, his shirt was white with yellow checkered stripes. Later during an early restoration in the 1970s, his shirt was painted solid yellow. When the sign was restored in 1998 his shirt was painted a red and yellow checkered pattern. In the mid-1990s, Vic's cowboy hat was shortened by a few feet in order to squeeze the sign under the Fremont Street Experience canopy. Two signs were modeled after this one in West Wendover, NV and Laughlin, NV (see below). For more, see these websites: 1, 2, 3, and 4. [map]

Wendover Will
West Wendover, NV
Wendover Will was built in 1952, one year after Vegas Vic (see above). With permission from the Pioneer Club in Las Vegas, this nearly identical sign was built for the Stateline Hotel and Casino. Will was named after the hotel and casino's President's grandfather. Despite numerous articles about the sign stating that the sign is 63 feet tall, the cowboy sign itself is only 46-feet-tall. This still makes it six feet taller than Vegas Vic. The inflated height measurement probably included the text panels and base which were installed beneath the sign originally. The sign is recognized in the Guinness Book of World's Records as the world's largest mechanical cowboy sign. Originally, both of the cowboy's arms moved up and down. In 2002, when the Stateline expanded and had a new sign built, this cowboy sign was put in storage. The sign was donated to the City in 2004. In 2005, the sign was restored by YESCO for $200,000. The text panels which read "This is the Place" on one side and "Where the West Begins" on the other were removed. The sign was installed on a new, 15-foot-tall base in the median at the western edge of town as a welcome sign. The cowboy's eye still winks and his cigarette moves up and down. However, his arms do not move. When YESCO was installing the sign at the new location, it was discovered that the counterweights inside the sign kept hitting the sign panels, causing the whole sign to shimmy. The decision was made to do away with the arm movement. The cowboy's neon winking eye and moving cigarette still function. For more, see this website. [map]

River Rick
Laughlin, NV
2014: 2022:
The River Rick, aka Laughlin Lou, sign was built in 1981 by YESCO and installed at the Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall. It is a copy of the Vegas Vic sign (see above). The sign was restored in 2014. Originally, both of his hinged arms moved up and down. His eye winked and his cigarette moved through animated neon. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2.

Vegas Vic
Reno, NV
Will Durham had this Vegas Vic sign created in 2022 based on drawings for the original Vegas Vic sign shown above. This sign is eight feet wide and featured a sequentially lit cigarette and winking eye. It is in the private collection of Will who lives in Reno but it has been displayed in galleries a couple of times.

Mechanical Signs
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