Adventures in Neon

David Benko Turns a Lifetime of Collecting Into a Museum for All to Share

By Kathy Ursprung

David Benko
David Benko, lifelong collector, executive director, and curator of the National Neon Sign Museum, stands in the future museum theater.

In the heart of The Dalles, a different kind of Main Street is taking shape.

Among the businesses are a soda shop, a radio and TV store, a pharmacy, a jeweler, a clothing store, a restaurant, and a barbershop.

This is the vision of David Benko, founder of the National Neon Sign Museum, which is being built inside the historic 1910 Elks building at 200 E. Third St. in The Dalles. Its “main street” shows how some neon signs would look on a city street.

David is targeting Neon Classic Weekend—the second weekend in August—for the grand opening of this new venture. The annual weekend event draws thousands of classic car aficionados from around the nation to The Dalles for car shows, the Neon Cruise and drag races. These classic cars often date back to the golden age of neon advertising, the post-war 1940s and 1950s.

The museum’s assets feature one of the largest collections of neon storefront signs in the world—around 250 to 300, as well as tens of thousands of pieces of ephemera related to signs. David has built the collection through a lifetime in collecting and sign production.

“I’m 50 years old, and I started collecting antiques on some level when I was 8 years old,” he says.

He started with telephone and telegraph insulators, expanded to include telephone and telegraph signs, and then other kinds of signs.

National Neon Sign Museum
A rendering of the National Neon Sign Museum’s lower level depicts an early vision of the education center, which will provide space for classes and learning opportunities for children and adults. Rendering provided by the National Neon Sign Museum

“By the time I was 14 and one of my best friends was 16, we’d started traveling across the country buying, and selling to support more buying,” David says.

When he graduated from high school, David moved to California to attend film school. He met a collector who had 20 Wurlitzer jukeboxes, as well as gas pumps and other collectibles.

“You couldn’t see the wall, so deep was his collection,” David says. “He left me thinking, ‘That’s how I want to collect.’”

After returning home to Washington, David contacted Ace Neon, which started restoring his fledgling collection. That connection led to a six-month apprenticeship. David finished his apprenticeship in 1988 and has been in the sign industry ever since.

David launched Rocket City Neon while living in Everett, north of Seattle, then relocated to the Vancouver, Washington, area to be more centrally located for his clients from Los Angeles to Seattle. In 1994, he settled in an old American Legion Hall in Camas, Washington. Through his experience working with neon, he learned that people are fascinated by the work process.

“And I always had antique signs sitting around,” he says.

David envisioned a museum filled with his collection, where signs could be displayed in context. At the heart of the museum would be a working neon shop with big, glass-less windows so people could talk and ask questions.

David’s shop evolved to become Rocket City Neon Advertising Museum. The museum closed in 2002, a few years after David took an assignment with “Sign of the Times” magazine, a trade publication developing a sign museum. Working long distance from Vancouver, his goal was to build and restore the museum collection.

That experience led to a three-month residence in Buffalo, New York. David worked at a 100-year-old sign shop that had stored all of its pre-World War II signs in the basement.

“They were all still there, and they wanted to donate a lot of them,” David says.

Unfortunately, the sign museum wasn’t meant to be. “Sign of the Times” cut its budget in response to the changing publishing industry. David returned to the neon shop he had left behind.

He was approached by Steve Burke, then-economic development director for the city of Vancouver, who suggested David launch a new, bigger neon museum in Vancouver. But the project never quite came together.

Eventually, as his eldest child entered kindergarten, David set the project aside.

Then, not quite two-and-a-half years ago, a friend told him about a building in The Dalles that had long been vacant. He gave David the address, which David put in his wallet.

“A week and a half or two weeks went by, and one night I just couldn’t sleep,” he says.

He was cleaning out his wallet when he found the address and decided to enter it into his computer.

“I thought, ‘That can’t be the building,’” David recalls.

He and his wife, Kirsten, went to see it the next day. Inside, David could visualize his museum: a gift shop to the left, a movie theater straight ahead, and storefronts in the ballroom showing what his signs looked like in place.

David approached The Dalles City Council.

“It was a back-and-forth negotiation,” David says. “Then, finally, they offered to help us get into the building.”

He signed papers in April 2015 with a goal of opening in April 2017. The process of renovating was bigger than expected, and demolition was delayed at the outset. The museum won’t officially open until August.

“We’re not terribly behind,” David says. “Not as far behind as it might look.”

He estimates they have removed about 100,000 pounds of materials from the building, including the remains of four false ceilings, each successively lower.

“Somebody said the building can breathe again,” David says.

He had seen an interior photo of the building from years past. He was confused because the beautiful beams and coffered ceilings in the photo were missing. When he started removing asbestos from an area, he discovered the layers of the ceiling.

“We could have left the lower ceiling, but it made sense for the love of the building to do it right instead of to do it fast,” David says.

The museum will feature a working neon shop in the basement, and classrooms that David hopes to see filled with related classes in advertising, marketing, graphic design, and related topics.

David and his board of directors are still fundraising for the National Neon Sign Museum, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

While neon takes center stage at the museum, it is only a part of the story.

“One of the pieces of the story we’re trying to tell is the way that people have been advertising forever,” David says. “A thousand years ago, they would carve advertising in their sandals to leave messages on the beach.”

For more information about the museum and how to donate visit the Neon website.