Al Sklar — an Industry’s Loss

I was checking my e-mail last year, and I had a blurb come across my laptop screen from a neon newsgroup member giving us the heads up on the passing of Al Sklar, a very large foundation block within the neon industry and a very dear friend of mine.

I guess there is no good way to receive bad news, and this was some of the poorest news I had gotten in a while. The August 2007 issue of Sign Business contained a short note on Al’s passing, but I wanted to let you all know why some of us feel that time had claimed another important neon pioneer.

I could try and outline some of the diverse things that Al had been involved in–such as his involvement in Hollywood movies, TV or other non-sign related things–but that wasn’t the Al I knew or the friend I should tell you about. Let's put that stuff aside for things like crackle tubing and G-Cups.

During the late ’80s and early ’90s, I came to know Al from various meetings at some National Electric Sign Association functions, which was the precursor to today's International Sign Association (ISA) and United States Sign Council (USSC). Back in the days when those two entities were predominately electrically orientated, one found a great deal of new and innovative electrical sign concepts from these gatherings. Information and discussions came from some of the best craftsmen in the industry. Unfortunately for some and fortunately for others, today’s events and conventions are far more thinned out from that electrical substance and are now overrun with subjects such as “vehicle wrappings” and “Web site potentials”.

Anyway, back at that time, Al was one person who you could always sit down and swap ideas with on safer ways to create and install neon. Heck, Al had been involved with neon in some manner since the late 1930s, and for us neophytes in relationship to luminous tubing who only entered the business in the early 1970s, there was a lot to be passed along. Al was one of those last remaining individuals who had gone through the union-type apprentice programs in the electrical signage segment that I so often use as a reference, but his primary training came in tube bending and glass creation.

It was through those passed-along trade techniques and concepts that folks such as myself came to really understand what our predecessors in this segment of the industry worked their way through. One has to remember that sign construction and training in those days encompassed such things as exceptionally well-planned spacing for current-carrying parts a good distance from anything that might be flammable, and where that was physically not possible, insulating metal with elements such as porcelain and glass.

Back in the ’70s, we reworked some of those signs from the ’30s and ’40s, and they were perfectly fine. The only reason why we were even involved with those structures wasn’t because of failures in construction but rather because the northwestern cities of our state (Vermont) were going through a Washington-funded renaissance and there was a tremendous amount of money being poured into the “revitalizing” of street art for these urban areas.

I remember I’d tell Al about some of the problematic situations we’d run into in the field, and before long he’d go to his shop and come up with some kind of contraption or gadget that would help solve the problem. This was especially true during the late ’70s and ’80s as neon experienced a rebirth–and with the help of Rudi Stern, the founder of Let There Be Neon out of the Soho section of New York City–people of all generations felt that all one needed was a set of torches and a beret in order to create these works of art.

In the early ’90s, when sign-related fires and shoddy installations became a plague to our industry, Al was one of the few individuals who went far out of his way to try and bring some kind of sanity back to our industry. I can remember times when I would hear folks scoff off Al’s persistence against plastic components, but what almost none of them knew was that Al had earlier been heavily involved with plastics and knew their flipside. In the late ’50s he had opened one of the first wholesale plastic companies in San Diego and in years to come had some of the first patents on the so-called plastic boot and other plastic neon components. However, it was that early experience that drove him so much against organics and their flammability in later years.

I started out this story about a friend by referring to the USSC show and how that time of the year always makes me think of Al. After USSC stopped its yearly trips to Hartford, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc., and ended up spending that first week each year in Atlantic City, it became the one place that I knew that Al, his wife Barb and I would always get together. Since Al had spent his youth just to the west and across the river in Philadelphia, he always showed us around this shore resort and picked the restaurants he wanted to go to. Usually at the table beside the three of us, another old friend, the late Paul Davis, joined in. So many times and in so many directions I have watched the desires at that table develop into some form of reality.

For many years when I would be doing seminars and shows, I would visit places like Las Vegas and Long Beach where time with Al and Barb would be part of my personal itinerary. For Long Beach, I would always fly into San Diego and Al would be waiting for me there at the gate. Then it was off to one of his favorite delis or, if time allowed, a trip over to City Hall to pick up that city’s electrical inspection supervisor Tommy Trainor to catch up on code thoughts or related issues. A stop at Al and Barb’s shop always followed, and that was a time to discuss prototypes that had some sort of materialization. Many things always seemed to be coming down the pike during that sunny period of time, such as CPAs, GG Cups, Casino Bushings, Zip–Thrus or new methods of producing crackle for crackle tubing.

I always felt bad when I would get up to leave their home on Mount Helix. But I always knew my friend Telford Dorr–a neon/electrical engineer type–lived just a few miles away and would keep me up to date on how they were both doing.

When I think of how close-knit our neon industry actually is, I think of a cute little story of how one night in San Diego, Al and I were looking at pictures hanging on his den wall. One of the pictures was of Marty Epstein’s Sign Company (MECO) in Philadelphia. Al apprenticed and then worked for that company. Then as we put two and two together, we realized that my company, Vermont Sign, had bought our neon equipment from MECO when it went out of business and the manifold and torch equipment that ended up in our plant in Essex was the exact same manifold and torch equipment that Al had worked with many years before. Truly how small a world it is.

In the past couple of years, we have watched a few of the neon trade's true mentors like Ben Kresge of National Vacuum Labs in the Bronx, Paul Davis of Nuts and Bolts fame, and now Al Sklar pass on.

At least from two, if not all three of these mentors, we have some of their teachings and visions through the lenses of the camera within the pages of the neon lighting book, A Professional Advantage. Our industry owes so much to these pioneers, and they will be truly missed.