WHIDBEY ISLAND — Viva Las Langley.
The 9-foot neon motel sign near the entrance to Langley is a retro atomic boomerang in blue and green lights with a red star.
What’s up with that?
Over the past two years, the Langley Motel sign has become the town’s unofficial welcome sign and a snapshot sensation.
Before that, the low-profile motor lodge went largely unnoticed along the bend of Camano Avenue leading to the seaside village.
Not anymore. At night the vibrant yet subtle colors and shape pop out. It’s cool during the daytime, too.
“We have people who stop and jump in the landscape and take pictures in front of the sign,” said Lori Soli, a former Las Vegan-turned-Langley motelier with her husband, Todd.
“I put a fence around the garden not really to keep the tourists out, it was intended to keep the rabbits out. But it has helped. I would look up and I’d see people standing in the garden,” she said.
Anyone who has been to Langley knows it’s about as opposite from Las Vegas as you can get. Langley is a haven for artsy and outdoorsy sorts. The sidewalks roll up by 7 p.m. Rabbits lounge on lawns, when not menacing gardens, that is.
The neon signs are functional art by Tim Leonard, a custom metal fabricator by trade and owner of Heavy Metal Works on the outskirts of town.
Smaller neon signs he made illuminate First Street at Music for the Eyes, Village Pizzeria and Sprinklz Ice Cream, and on Second Street at Callahan’s Firehouse Studio & Gallery, Useless Bay Coffee and an arcade Leonard owns, The Machine Shop.
Those are the main streets in this no-stoplight town of about 1,100 residents and hordes of seasonal tourists and vacationers.
“It adds a little flair and another dimension to our village,” Mayor Tim Callison said. “It adds to the overall fun nature of Langley.
“There was quite a bit of neon back in the ’50s and ’60s. It kind of disappeared over time. It requires maintenance and upkeep and people got rid of it. We went to a much more conservative approach to signage. Having a little neon is a nice break from that.”
Any plans to have a City Hall sign in neon, with maybe a tall, friendly cowboy like the iconic Vegas Vic sign?
“It would not be viewed as a good use of public funds,” the mayor said.
Lori and Todd Soli live in a home behind the 1950s Langley Motel. The five-unit inn had been converted into apartments when they bought it about 20 years ago.
“I had a sign made that was carved by a local carver that was getting old and an another sign that was falling apart,” he said.
They commissioned Leonard to make a new sign.
“It was twofold, that it was this welcome to our little town and then also letting people know where the motel is,” she said.
For Lori Soli, it’s a touch of home.
“It harkens back to the Route 66 signs. I have these childhood memories of the old Las Vegas signs and I really am fond of them … the Vegas Vic and the Silver Slipper,” she said.
Todd Soli is an architect. He knows about plans and codes. He sketched the design for Leonard.
“It was a back-and-forth collaboration. I wanted that boomerang shape in there and some things I’d seen in research on old mid-century motel signs,” he said.
“The misconception is that a neon sign is extremely bright. The lumens that certain colors emit are a lot less. There was a whole analysis of the lumens or footcandles it puts out. It was thoroughly scrutinized.”
Brigid Reynolds, Langley’s community planning director, said all signs must pass the design review board.
“We talked a lot about brightness and glare and keeping it so it wasn’t overly disruptive,” Reynolds said. “We’re conscious of night lighting and reflection on the road on the wet winter nights. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t creating a hazard.”
It’s splashy, not flashy.
“We couldn’t have any of it flash or move or rotate … or twinkle,” Todd Soli said.
Not even the red star.
“For us, it’s so much more than a sign. It’s an art piece that just happens to advertise our motel,” Lori Soli said. “There’s never a problem finding us now. It has helped business.”
Leonard said he’d like to see Langley become a neon tourist stop. He takes pride in the vibrancy it brings to town.
He started working in neon more than seven years ago. It was a therapeutic medium as he recovered from injuries and the grief of losing his youngest daughter when a tree fell on their Ford Explorer on Christmas Day 2011. Tobiah “Zippy” Leonard attended South Whidbey Elementary School. She was 9.
Leonard does every step of the neon process by hand, from drafting to production to installation.
“It looks easy from the outside,” he said. “On the inside, there’s a lot of engineering.”
The neon sign-making led to his restoring old pinball machines, dozens of them.
Leonard needed a place to put his passions, so he opened The Machine Shop, which has 85 vintage coin-fed pinball machines, video games and a large virtual reality room. Also on display are other neon works, such as “BOOM!” and “Be AmaZing” signs. The capital Z is a tribute to Zippy, as is the arcade.
Leonard has lots of lights under his watch, and he treats all with TLC.
“When a bulb goes out he brings it to our attention,” Lori Soli said.
“He comes to replace it,” her husband added. “He’s obviously as attached to the sign as we are.”
So, it seems, are others.
“We had a neighbor, he liked to stop over and get a cocktail in the evening and sit and have a drink in front of the sign,” Lori Soli said. “It’s been kind of fun.”