Jim and Becky McCarter keep history alive through neon signs
Every sign has a story, and every sign is worth saving — at least to Jim and Becky McCarter. The couple from Columbia have been dedicated to the craft and history of neon signs for more than four decades.
When you enter the door to their in-home business, you are immediately engulfed by that undeniable low buzz of a museum of neon signs and relics of Americana. Porcelain-faced signs, a barber shop pole, beer signs of every flavor, clocks and a life-sized railroad signal shine, turn and flash in the crowded shop. Welcome to Creative Neon.
On a typical day you’ll find Jim in his backyard studio with two fires blazing — a cross fire and a ribbon burner. He eyes a hand-drawn sketch, inserts a silicone straw into his mouth and selects a narrow tube of glass. He leans over the fire and slowly morphs the glass from solid to liquid, blowing air through his straw to keep the glass a perfect tube. He eases back from the flame and bends the glass to mirror the sketch.
“I bend everything backwards,” says Jim, who admits he commonly writes letters backward after years of creating neon signs.
Once the glass is cool and all the pieces are created, Jim is ready to pump in the gas. He moves to a table with a setup that looks like it was inspired by Frankenstein. He attaches the tubes to a vacuum, which draws out moisture and dirt. The glass is heated up to around about 500 degrees, and once it cools, Jim adds either neon or argon gas. The type of gas determines the color.
Jim’s work spans designing new neon signs to fixing a bar’s broken beer sign. If you spot a neon sign in Columbia or in many of the surrounding towns, you can bet Jim and Becky had a hand in making it shine. A small sampling of their portfolio includes the neon signs at Billiards on Broadway, D&M Sound, Tropical Liquors and Murry’s in Columbia, B&B Theatres in Fulton and Goody’s Steakburgers in Sedalia.
On special Columbia sign is at Dryer’s Shoe Store. Back in the 1980s, when Jim and Becky first moved to Columbia, the original sign hung above the downtown store — but it was a light-less shell. It took several years, research and special permits, but Jim was able to restore it to its original glory. “That probably was one of the most rewarding jobs because the owner had never seen it lit up before,” he says.
Jim and Becky, who have been married 52 years, also had a special role in a proposal. They knew a young couple who were both medical students at the University of Missouri in 1995. He was ready to propose, but she said it would take a sign from God for them to get married with all the stress from school.
The resulting sign read: Holly will you marry me? -John. Below the shining words, in vinyl, Becky put: A sign from God. Needless to say, Holly said yes, and the couple still have their personalized sign. “That was the only marriage proposal we ever did,” Becky says.
From special Christmas presents to casinos to tattoo parlors, Jim and Becky help their customers’ visions shine.
“The cool thing about neons is during that rush of neon — in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s — it was on almost every sign,” Becky says. “Then in the ‘50s and ‘60s, lighted signs with plastic faces were the new thing. Everybody said LEDs were going to replace neons, but they don’t have the brightness. We’re starting to see a huge amount of collectors after old neons. For us, neons are back in their heyday; people want glass.”
Becky is the third generation of her family involved in sign production. She and Jim grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. Becky’s father owned a mid-sized company that specialized in commercial signage. As part of the business, her grandfather learned the neon sign trade. After Jim got out of the service in the 1970s and started dating Becky, he became an apprentice of her grandfather and father.
The young couple attended an industry event in the late 1970s and met Henry Dietz, who owned a sign business in Columbia. Henry sold them his business, and the McCarters made mid-Missouri their home, with their new company, Columbia Sign. After a few years Jim and Becky sold the company to be close to family in Iowa. But in 1985, Jim was recruited back to Columbia. The new owners of Columbia Sign needed a tube bender because they had just landed a big job — outfitting the under-construction Columbia Mall.
In 1988, the couple officially started Creative Neon. Today Jim is somewhat retired and does most of his commercial work through connections with Columbia’s Impact Signs and Columbia Signs and Jefferson City’s Bee Seen Signs. The repairs or custom pieces are all from word of mouth.
“People come up with an idea and then we fit them to neon,” Jim says. “Everything is custom, which determines the cost. The cost is based on number of letters, letter style, if letter has spurs on it, diameter of the tube, color of the signs, number of colors and more.”
“Most of the time people have a general idea of what they want,” Becky adds. “We collaborate, and most of the time we have them come in because we have so much neon, they can get ideas. The cool part for us is when a customer comes to get their sign and they haven’t seen it except for maybe a pattern we approved with them. We love seeing them see it for the first time.”
When not working in the shop, you can find Jim and Becky poking around at antique shops across the state and beyond. They have become avid pinball machine collectors, and currently own about 30. “Out of all the games here, there were only two that were working when I bought them,” Jim says.
The pinball machines entertain their six grandchildren, as well as the scout troops, homeschooling groups and art clubs who come to visit Creative Neon and learn the process behind the art.
For Jim, his work is just one small step in the process of keeping the past alive. “We try not to change the history of a pieces,” he says. “But at the same time, we would like to get we’d like to bring it back to life. I love the challenge of trying to get things to work again.”
To contact Jim and Becky McCarter with Creative Neon, call them at 573-474-6366 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.