Toronto

Aglow in T.O.: A neon sign museum could light up the downtown

The Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Association (BIA) hopes to turn the neon lights back on — and to preserve a little of Yonge Street's old charm.

Downtown Yonge BIA says the outdoor archive would preserve an iconic part of city's cultural past

The Yonge/Dundas Business Improvement Association wants to open up a neon sign museum in Toronto. It's happened in Edmonton, shown here, and Vancouver. (City of Edmonton)

Over the years, the iconic buzz and gleam that once greeted afternoon strollers along the country's longest street has dimmed.

But the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Association (BIA) hopes to turn the neon lights back on — and to preserve a little of Yonge Street's old charm.

The BIA's executive director said the uproar over the initially uncertain fate of the Honest Ed's sign — since saved by Mirvish Productions — has convinced him it's time to blaze ahead in creating a neon museum along the lanes south of Yonge-Dundas Square. 

Mark Garner has already spent the last few years trying to generate public interest in what he calls a relic of Toronto's cultural history.

The hitch, however, has been finding the old signs.

"That's the fun part," Garner said, laughing. "I keep saying that I think there's some sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark, big factory out in Milton that has crates and crates of old neon signs."

The huge neon Sam the Record Man is held by Ryerson University. (Canadian Press )

Wanted: neon signs

Some of the icons have since been recovered. An original Papaya Hut sign found its way to the business improvement association, Garner said.

And the Sam the Record Man sign will be up soon enough; last week Ryerson University said it would make an announcement later this year about the sign in its possession.

The others? Well, it's all part of the mystery.

"We're really asking Torontonians: Where are they? We know they've been taken down, but maybe they're in someone's basement," Garner said. "That's the next challenge."

Sam and Jack Markle created much of the glow along Yonge Street in the 1970s — including the Sam the Record Man sign — and they have agreed to help with the proposed museum, Garner told CBC Toronto.  If some signs can't be found, their creators may replicate them.

This artist's rendering shows what the Honest Ed's sign will look like if the city approves a plan to install it on the Victoria Street entrance of the Ed Mirvish Theatre. (Mirvish Productions)

The Honest Ed's sign will find a new home outside the Mirvish Theatre at 244 Victoria St., one of the same lanes upon which Garner is considering displaying the potential museum's other attractions. 

The 23,000-bulb exterior sign will be housed in a warehouse and refurbished before moving to its new permanent home. 

The city still has to approve the change, but Garner said Mirvish's decision has helped propel his dream. 

The neon pink Inglis sign was visible from the Gardiner Expressway until it came down in 2014. (Perry Quan/Flickr)

Finding funding for the project is still a priority.

But Garner believes the outdoor museum could be alight by 2017, with plans to make it bigger and brighter the following year.

He said he's hopeful city staff will support him. 

"These signs … made the street alive," he said. "It was sort of a rite of passage, when you came to … Toronto you went down Yonge Street, you walked down from Bloor Street to the north all the way down to the waterfront."

Got a favourite old sign from downtown? Send your pictures to tonews@cbc.ca.

Fran's Restaurant neon sign is a favourite with one reader. The diner is a local chain with retro decor. (Irene Park)

With files from Nicholas Boisvert

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