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Keep Denver Glowing: Seth Totten of Acme Neon

Seth Totten of Denver's Acme Neon is a craftsman who makes the glowing relics of Denver's streets shine as bright as ever.

Iconic signs, like those that grace the Satire Lounge, Bluebird Theater and Mayan Theatre, remind us of those years when neon was king.

This sign was on Union Station back in the '50s.

Seth Totten of Acme Neon finished restoration work on the legendary jazz club's sign in September.

Both Totten and Corky Scholl, founder of Save the Signs, are helping to make sure Denver's neon legacy remains on display on the streets.

Totten has restored countless signs and built as many new ones, including the neon signs outside of Summit Music Hall and Mezcal.

 Totten also collects antique signage equipment.

Totten not only works with Save the Signs when he can, he also talks with some of the business or building owners where classic neon signs are located and offers to restore or take the signs down.

Early in Totten's career he and Tom Hollar began saving downtown Denver neon signs from destruction.

Seth Totten of Denver's Acme Neon is a craftsman who makes the relics of Denver's streets shine as bright as ever. With the help of Save the Signs, he is pushing to keep neon alive.
Denver was a neon town. Its streets in the 1950s, '60s and '70s were a glorious rainbow of colors and crazily crafted, hand-painted signs inviting all comers to the next hotel, bar, store or car lot -- basically, you weren't anybody unless you had a neon sign. 

Iconic signs, like those that grace the Satire Lounge, Bluebird Theater and Mayan Theatre, remind us of those years when  neon was king. But that's largely changed. Many of the city's glorious neons have fallen into disrepair and are phantoms of their former selves or just ghosts, memories of those who have lived in Denver long enough to remember them.

In their place are cheaply manufactured signs lit by fluorescents or LED strips, or else the giant flatscreen panels that dot highways and LoDo. But there are those who want to make sure the neon doesn't disappear, groups like Save the Signs and the neon sign builders and repairmen -- neon benders, if you will -- who are helping to change that.

Take, for instance, El Chapultepec on Market and 20th streets Seth Totten of Acme Neon finished restoration work on the legendary jazz club's sign in September, leaving the patina of time on the sheet metal but getting its letters and cactus to glow for the first time in years. The restoration was a group effort of the bar's owners, the local neon aficionados at Save the Signs and Totten himself.

"That was definitely a challenge. I opened that sign up and it hadn't been touched," he says. "I'm sure it's been Band-Aid-ed up since it was installed, but it had a lot a problems."

Among the problems: original cloth-wrapped wire, dead pigeons -- really -- and missing service doors. That and its location in one of the busiest nightlife districts in town -- right next to Coors Field -- meant that Totten had to work at 5 a.m. in the morning. But that's comes with the gig. 

Totten began working on neon lights when he started an apprenticeship at the YESCO sign company in 1990. He opened Acme Neon, now near Five Points, in 2001. Since then he's restored countless signs and worked on many new ones, including the neon in the signs outside of Summit Music Hall and Mezcal.  

At heart, Totten is a neon historian. Early in Totten's career he and Tom Hollar began saving downtown Denver neon signs from destruction. "Me and Tom, we used to go to LoDo when it was no man's land. "We used to go and take neon off of abandoned buildings and old bars and stuff and light it up and I was always interested in how it was made."

Hollar was killed, but that legacy of salvaging neon history is alive with Totten. His shop is packed with resurrected signage from bygone businesses. "Most of these are places that have gone out of business and places that are getting torn down, and I saved them from the dumpster," he explains. 

Totten also collects antique signage equipment. He shows off stacks of tubing, heavy ceramic transformers, cold cathodes, motorized light switches, all of which he's bought or saved from neon companies that have gone out of business. In fact, he credits an old Acme transformer for inspiring the name of his business. When possible, he tries to use original parts in restoration work. 

Protecting a legacy of lightSeth Totten of Denver's Acme Neon is a craftsman who makes the glowing relics of Denver's streets shine as bright as ever.

Both Totten and Corky Scholl, founder of Save the Signs, are helping to make sure Denver's neon legacy remains on display on the streets. 

Scholl's campaign, which started as a Facebook page two years ago, has also gained steam. "We got some of the Colfax signs on the Colorado Preservation list of endangered places last year," he says. In 2015, he has a lofty goal "We're trying to get a neon museum started over at the new Stanley Marketplace [near Stapleton]."

"Corky and Save the Signs has brought a lot of interest to preserving neon signs," Totten says. "There's more interest than there was. But it's a hard sell. People don't want to put money into them and they're getting rid of them faster than you can believe. They want to tear it all down and put up a Starbucks, Einstein's Bagels, Walmart, it's anywhere/everywhere U.S.A."

"Hopefully some signs will be saved -- I'm doing my part," Totten says. It's true. He not only works with Save the Signs when he can, he also talks with some of the business or building owners where classic neon signs are located and offers to restore or take the signs down.

"I just did a beautiful restoration in Union Station for The Kitchen restaurant,"  Totten says. The sign is now perched above The Kitchen Next Door's bar and features a train and caboose on a rail of animated light. "That was on Union Station back in the '50s. It was taken down. They found it, I restored it and they put it back in Union Station." 

Still, Totten can't save them all: "I tried to save the Pig'n Whistle sign before it got torn down," he laments. Even though he offered to remove it for free, the owner didn't let him and it ended up in a dumpster.

Still, Totten keeps busy six to seven days a week. "I'm doing a lot of restorations lately and doing a lot of new stuff, it depends on what's going on," he says. "I'm a one-man band. If someone needs it I'll be out there on Sunday." 

The LED takeover Early in Totten's career he and Tom Hollar began saving downtown Denver neon signs from destruction.

"Everybody wants those big screens you see going down the highway. That's the 'latest and greatest' for sure," Totten says. No matter how late or great, however, you can't replicate a unique neon sign, he argues. "The LED companies have definitely won on the marketing. But I'm hoping that neon will come back."

But the odds are against it, namely because of cost considerations. "LEDS are made in China," explains Totten. "You take them out of the box, stick them together and that's it. It's also a cheapness you can see. LEDs aren't displayed like neon tubes, they're usually behind semitransparent plastic. It seems like that's what everyone wants these days -- fast and cheap." 

Totten still has hope for neon, partly because of the art behind it. Each bend of the glass tubing is carefully fired, and if it's not done right, he does it again. The gases -- inert neon for red or argon for blue -- and the phosphorescent-coated tubes are carefully selected o create the wanted effect. 

"It's an art," Totten says. "It definitely takes skill to put it together." 

While Totten hopes for a resurgence of interest in neon, he's also concerned about its future. "It's a dying art -- I might as well be making beaver-skin top hats," he quips. "There are a few guys left in town and not many people are getting into it, because there's not a lot of work out there. 

Scholl commends Totten for his skill and his dedication to his craft. "He's one of the only neon benders left in Denver. There are others, but there are fewer and fewer every year," Scholl says. "He has a lot of experience with doing historic restoration and he really cares about the signs."

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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