The Diving Lady Neon Sign

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On October 5, 2010, a storm destroyed the iconic “Diving Lady” neon sign that towered above the Starlite Motel in Mesa. Victor Linoff, President of the Mesa Preservation Foundation, describes what’s being done to restore the historic animated sign.

Ted Simons: In October of 2010, a storm destroyed an iconic neon sign in Mesa. The animated "diving lady" at the Starlite motel smashed to the ground, but soon thereafter, the Mesa preservation foundation stepped in to save her. The foundation is raising money to restore the 78-foot tall sign. The restoration work is being done by neon light artist Larry Graham. His shop is carefully putting the diving lady back together, giving her a much needed facelift and replacing her shattered neon lights. The overall restoration project is expected to cost about $80,000. If all goes as planned, the diving lady welcome diving again by October 5th, the one-year anniversary of her accident. Joining me now to talk about the restoration effort is Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa restoration foundation. Good to see you again.
Vic Linoff: Good to see you.
Ted Simons: We kind of got a look at here there, but in terms of the diving lady in her prime, describe her.
Vic Linoff: She was an absolutely incredibly -- well, first, nobody talks about the sign as a physical entity. They talk about it as a person. She's got a name. She's the diving lady and for 50 years, every -- well, about six times a minute, she would do an animated dive from the top of that pole.
Ted Simons: There she goes. Over and over again. The diving lady Six dives a minute? That's a lot of work.
Vic Linoff: You should see her when she has to climb back up.
Ted Simons: Where is the starlight motel? Where was the sign located?
Vic Linoff: The sign -- The Starlite motel is just west of Lindsay road on the north side of main street in Mesa. The motel was built in 1958 and by two brothers from Kansas. And they -- well, let's put it this way, in the late '50s, early '60s, a pool was a real amenity. Particularly in Arizona, and if you had a pool, you wanted to tout the fact this was a motel that had a pool. So Paul Millet, who fabricated the sign originally was called in, he fabricated the Starlite sign which was a smaller sign identifying the motel, but he was called in when the pool was built to really do something that would be a landmark, that could be seen for miles.
Ted Simons: Is he a well known neon artist?
Vic Linoff: Paul Millet is probably the premier name in neon art in the valley. And that's really what it is. Certainly signs are commercial. And they require a huge amount of artistic skills.
Ted Simons: With that in mind how much damage was done to the sign?
Vic Linoff: Well, I don't know if you have pictures of it, but when she fell, all of the neon was broken. Obviously, a fall from that height is going to crush the sheet metal. What we learned in taking it apart was that there was considerable damage just from age. It was built before some of the codes and water proofing so there was a lot of rust, deterioration and birds have been nesting inside, under most circumstances people would say it will be a total loss.
Ted Simons: Who decided to restore?
Vic Linoff: Well, the Mesa preservation foundation did. We were meeting to do something with the Buckhorn baths which is only a mile way and the Buckhorn was progressing and lo and behold we had a horrible storm last October and the sign fell and we thought we have to do something about that. Because it takes some real skills to put a project like this together, because not only are you restoring a piece of history, you have to go through all the modern codes and permitting and that sort and we stepped in and the motel owners had been gracious in understanding how difficult a project this is and gave us free rein to put it back together.
Ted Simons: Expensive project too. Was there insurance on the sign?
Vic Linoff: There was a modest amount of insurance. Not nearly enough to cover the damage and it may have been based on the original cost. In 1960, about $6,000 to build that sign. About $80,000 to repair it.
Ted Simons: Who is donating so far to help get the diving lady, diving again?
Vic Linoff: First and foremost, it's important to know that the community is really behind this. We've received over 100 contributions from $5 to $500. And with the five dollar contributions, people say it's not much, we know that, but we want you to know we support what you're doing. And then the large corporations need to step in and one of the best partnership so far is Hunt Construction, Able Steel and EMJ Engineering are combining to fabricate and install and put new wiring to the pole. That alone is about $30,000 of the cost.
Ted Simons: And we do have a website up there for folks who want to help save this part of Arizona history. Certainly the valley's history. The man doing the repairs is a neon artist by the name of Larry graham.
Vic Linoff: Larry is an unusual fellow and we knew that Larry was the one we wanted to do the repairs because he had been mentored by Paul Millet before Paul died and when Paul closed his shop, Larry bought most of the equipment, plus Larry knew Paul, there's some great stories, one story, there's a ladder near the top of the sign, if you look at the old photographs and we were wondering why there's an rickety eight-foot ladder welded to the frame of the sign. And Larry said I know exactly why that is, Paul's crane only went that high and he had to get higher. So he welded himself a ladder.
Ted Simons: But now with the restoration work, will the diving lady look exactly the same or will there be changes?
Vic Linoff: The changes you'll see are not anything -- let's put it this way, you won't see the changes. We've improved the framework structure and lightened the load by using some other materials, but the original skin of all of the pieces represents about 90%. We've only replaced those things which are damaged beyond repair. And we believe that we've done it in a historically sensitive way, so that we can actually apply and have this sign put on the national register of historic places.
Ted Simons: What kind of time frame are you looking at for getting this completed?
Vic Linoff: Our goal is October 5th. We'd really love to have a ceremony, relighting ceremony on the first anniversary. I have to tell you that mayor Scott Smith and Robert Britain who is the president of the Mesa convention visitors' bureau, our honorary co-chairs of the restore the diving lady committee, they're excited to be out there and turn that sign back on again.
Ted Simons: For folks wondering why you're taking so much time and effort and raising so much money to get this done and why we're talking about for this length of time on "Horizon," why is something like this important?
Vic Linoff: History means a lot in a community. In my view, it's very difficult to find a path to the future if you don't know where you've been. And it's a measure of the quality of life, it's a measure of the community's past. In the case of the diving lady, it's part of the highway system that was so important to the development of the valley. Four highways ran through the valley -- main street, Apache Boulevard, Van Buren and grand avenue. 60, 70, 80, and 89. I don't know if there's any other place in the country that has that length of federal highways all running along the street and represents an era when the growth began to take place. Preserving history brings heritage tourism. People love to come see that.
Ted Simons: Diving lady, October 5th. Vic, good luck to you and thanks for joining us.
Vic Linoff: Thank you very much.

Victor Linoff:President, Mesa Preservation Foundation;

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