Soon the neon 'Lady' will dive again - East Valley Tribune: Columns

Soon the neon 'Lady' will dive again

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

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Posted: Thursday, October 6, 2011 9:51 am | Updated: 2:30 pm, Fri Mar 29, 2013.

Lovers of nostalgia and neon signs will have to wait a little while longer before they can see one of Mesa's landmarks re-dedicated in the same spot where she posed for 50 years.

Fans of the Diving Lady, the iconic and nationally known neon sign that began fronting the Starlite Motel in 1960 at 2710 E. Main St., had hoped to see the sign restored and back up on Wednesday - one year after she crashed to the ground during a severe thunderstorm.

Although her extreme makeover is complete, preservationists are awaiting a permit approval from the city that requires rewiring from the service panel to the sign's pole and moving a nearby irrigation line. The 77-foot sign is on schedule to be re-dedicated sometime in the weeks ahead, before Thanksgiving.

Stanford Russon, 90, of Lehi, Utah, the man who sketched, designed and made patterns of the Diving Lady before he painted her, still travels to Mesa twice a year and said he hopes to be in his former city of residence the day the sign is re-dedicated.

"I'd like to be there to see it when they put it back up," Russon said of the Diving Lady. "It was a technical masterpiece. It became kind of a landmark because of all the people who drove by it and could see it from a mile away."

Russon, a retired illustrator and architectural draft artist, lived in Mesa for nearly 20 years from 1949 to 1968 when he worked for Paul Millett, owner of Paul Millett Sign Co. The Mesa company produced numerous neon signs that drew attention to businesses throughout the region for decades, many of which are well-remembered today: Bill Johnson's Big Apple restaurant signs, the former Round-Up Drive-in sign once at 65th Street and Thomas Road in Scottsdale featuring a 30-foot cowboy yielding a lasso, and Jack Adams' Alligator Farm. The live alligators were a popular roadside attraction during the 1950s and 60s on Apache Trail next door to the Starlite. Its neon sign: a large green alligator.

Russon's reminiscences of the Diving Lady and his time working with Millett, who died in 2007, roll off his tongue in increments, similar to the intermittent blinking of a warm neon sign.

Russon, a native of Lehi, Utah, had decided to move to Mesa in the late 1940s after a chance meeting with Millett during a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meeting in Seoul, South Korea. Both of the men are devout Mormons and had served as Army GIs during World War II. They did occupational work in Korea after the war.

"That's where it all kind of started," Russon said. "Paul said he needed someone to work with him in his sign business, and I had drawn horses and cars ever since I was a kid in school and later renderings of buildings and shopping malls, so I got the job."

"Paul was a hard worker," Russon added. "He went to work early in the morning and stuck with it. He was proficient and a master at making neon tube and bending it. He was a great man."

"We didn't model the Diving Lady after anybody," Russon added. "I really didn't look at anything; I just drew it ... We made her a redhead - and we thought she was pretty good looking. I just drew a girl and designed the exterior patterns for her and where the neon tubing would go. We called the metal-box exterior of the sign a can, and the interior of it was just filled with electrical work."

I have an appreciation for neon signs, especially those that have been in existence for decades drawing attention to mom-and-pop establishments that often disappear before the signs themselves.

During the time I worked for newspapers in Elyria, Ohio and Lorain, Ohio, near Cleveland, I became accustomed to seeing the iconic neon sign of a large water bottle that fronted White House Artesian Springs on Ohio Route 113 in Elyria near my home. Whenever I pulled up to the intersection near the business at night, I would look down the road at the lighted water bottle. It was lined in silver neon to look like glass. The inside of the bottle was lined with blue neon lines that intermittently lit up and went dark to appear as if water was being poured out of the bottle. Not that I had a long drive from work, but whenever I saw that sign, I knew I was almost home.

The Diving Lady was a beacon that beckoned to travelers in a similar way from an era of roadside lodging when families traveled long distances by car.

Although Russon has seen the Diving Lady in a number of books and magazine articles throughout the years, he said he's surprised that it has continued to receive so much attention and drawn such an interest. When Russon visited Mesa in June, he saw the restored portions of the Diving Lady on display at Fiesta Mall.

"It delights me to see the interest that's still in it," Russon said. "Actually, to us, when we made it, the Diving Lady was just another sign. They were big and they were colorful and they were in motion. Neon is kind of coming back, but there's not many signs around like the ones we used to build."

The cost of the sign then: $6,000. Today, the restoration costs are reaching upward toward $65,000, according to Larry Graham, owner of Graham's Neon and Electric Sign Specialists in Mesa, which is restoring the sign for the Mesa Preservation Foundation. The foundation is overseeing a national fundraising drive and needs $25,000 to complete its mission.

The idea for the sign was a need conceived by the first owners of the Starlite Motel, brothers Elmo and Richard Kaesler and their father, Ed Kaesler. They were farmers from Syracuse, Kan., who moved to Mesa with their families in search of a better life and warmer weather. The Kaeslers built the Starlite in 1958, and sought out Millett to build them a sign that would capture a lot of attention and draw business to the motel.

Russon, who has been married to his wife, Teresa for 61 years, has six children, 22 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.

"None of them went into the sign business, but there are some artists among them," Russon said.

If he were to draw and paint the Diving Lady again today, he'd do it just about the same as he did 50 years ago.

"But swimsuits on an American lady have changed quite a bit over the years," he said.

• E.V. Life runs on Fridays. Contact Mike Sakal at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

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