I initially sent Robert Randazzo of Absolutely Neon a cold-call email asking if I could use his shop as a backdrop for a photo shoot I had been planning. Once we got to talking, though, I quickly realized that this establishment is more than just a shop, but a New Mexico staple and piece of history that needs to be shared. Keep reading to learn more about Robert, Route 66, and the neon lights of New Mexico!
Ashley When you started this shop, what did Nob Hill look like, and what was the scene?
Robert When I started here thirty years ago, basically what you had was the remnants of all the neon that was built and placed on Route 66, and Albuquerque. In those days, every store had a large colorful neon sign. So if you had a café, there was a sign that was specifically built for that café. Say it was the Western Café-- maybe it would have a stage coach with a Saguaro cactus. If you had a pharmacy, maybe it was Out West Pharmacy and had Native American designs. This went on and on and on and on for every block throughout Albuquerque. Not only in Route 66, but Fourth Street and elsewhere.
Every one of those signs was custom-built and completely different from every other sign. And they flashed-- they had red, blue and green lights. Some were tall and some were small. Some stuck out from the street, and some were placed in the front of the buildings. This was true all the way from LA to Chicago. Every time there was a city or a town, there was neon. Whenever you drove into a new town, especially at night, the lights provided a warm welcome and safe feeling. You were able to stop in a motel, and generally in that motel café, you could have a bite to eat and get some sleep, and start off again the next day.
So the neon lights and that era were a beautiful thing-- it was a necklace of light that really ran across half the country.
A lot of the signs were photographed by tourists or by city councils to historically record things, but if you want a good example of what it used to look like-- Tucumcari. The reason that Tucumcari still has a lot of its old signs is because the recession that it went through was severe enough that the townspeople didn’t really think about taking things down as things closed. Another store wasn’t going to move in, so the signs got saved that way.
So, whatever neon signs you see in towns today are really just one or two percent of what used to be.
Ashley: What got you into making neon signs?
Robert: Well, I kind of fell into it by accident, in a sense, and in a sense, no. I went to school in New York and got a psychology degree, and a sociology degree. After I completed that, I really wasn't happy with going into those fields. I had a cousin who I grew up with who was about the same age, but he didn’t go to college. Five years earlier he went to work as a union electrician, and through him, I also went to work as a union electrician. I started off as an apprentice, which is basically at the bottom—sweeping floors and getting the guys their coffee.
Before I left New York, I was running crews of electricians. We were putting up million dollar neon signs all over Times Square and Broadway. Those were the last of the neon signs before LEDs came in. That was from 1973 to 1986.
I moved to New Mexico permanently in like ’87. I crash landed out here and knew nothing about New Mexico. I was on my own, basically living out of my car. Long story short-- I had a life in Brooklyn. I was married. We had a house. Two families. And when I gave that up, I decided I wanted to see the United States. I was blowing hot glass as well at that time. I was doing vases and reproductions of 14th century Venetian pieces. I got an offer to work at a furnace up in Santa Fe. That’s all I really knew (about New Mexico)—just that there was a furnace up in Santa Fe. I knew nothing about the state. No clue.
Then I had the opportunity to go into business here in Albuquerque. A group of young people tried to start a neon shop, but they weren't very good at it, so they were having a hard time and I picked up that business, which is exactly where we are now.
What are some of the businesses in New Mexico that have your neon displays?
I’ve built a lot of stuff for the City of Albuquerque. For instance, the neon bridges over the street here in Nob Hill. I did the Route 66 Bridge out at Coors and Central. The El Vado sign was saved, and I renovated it, and a number of other things. Then, of course, there are stores and there is artwork all over peoples’ homes here in Albuquerque. I have photos, but unfortunately those signs are behind walls. But the outdoor signs, many of them are still here.
Ashley If somebody wanted to come and buy a sign from you, what's the price range?
Well, if you want something for your home, generally prices start at about $300. This is something that is custom designed, one-of-a-kind, and the neon will last 50 years as long as you don’t break it.
Ashley I need to get a Rhinestone Rambler design! I need to come back for a piece for my dressing room. Is there anything else you really want people to know about your shop?
Robert If there's anything that you should know, it’s that people aren't used to having service anymore. Because here, you can have something designed particularly for you from an idea. It can be designed within your affordability, and generally we can do all the colors that you like. We can give you something that you can take home, whether it’s a small piece or an expensive piece, and you’ll like it either way because it's generally the light that people enjoy. There’s almost nothing that's not possible. You will have a piece of artwork that will enliven your living space. It really is a genuinely sincere light.
Ashley I love it.
Robert Neon always puts a smile on people's faces, so I'm lucky that I can sell something to people that makes them happy. That’s a gift for me.
You know, I don't have to sell the stuff. People just come in and ask me about it all the time, so I’m happy that they enjoy my work and I'm happy that it gives them pleasure. It's a great gift. I'm a lucky guy that way. I’m happy to be in Albuquerque—it afforded me the opportunity to make this happen. I tried 2 or 3 times in New York. I’m from there, and it’s a tough place. But here, it was easy going. The people are nice and respectful. I'm very happy with my decision to start off my business anew here in Albuquerque.
For more information, contact Absolutely Neon