Before people looked at their phones to find their way around, they walked around, heads up, looking for signs. Back in 1979, neon was everything. It invited us in. It beckoned us to dine, drink, dance, even to gas up or pull off the highway to bed down at a motel.
The original Pagliacci Pizza, located on The Ave in Seattle’s University District, opened in 1979. Dorene Centioli-McTigue, the owner, dreamed of a neon sign, but first opted for a hand-painted one. She wanted to be sure the place would be around long enough to justify the expense of a custom neon sign.
Dorene remembers those days fondly. “We had built the place, and it was a really funky. We had these big high booths that we were taken with. They were cool. The only problem was that most of the things going on in those high booths that were inappropriate,” she says with a laugh. “College kids kept things interesting.”
Those college kids also loved Pagliacci’s pizza, and the next year Dorene had a neon sign made by Jay Starr at S & S Signs. The lettering was inspired by an album cover of the opera I Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. During a 1980 remodel, the neon sign went up and the booths went down. “Lower backs on the booths really opened the place up,” says Dorene. And the sign lit up The Ave, beckoning generations of UW college students to come in and enjoy a slice (or three) of pizza. When the store closed in 2018, Pagliacci saved the sign. With a new store opening at 415 E Pike Street (between Crawford and Summit), Western Neon renovated the original sign for the new location.
Western Neon, located in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, is the place to go for neon. They made the glowing “R” that sits atop the old Rainier Brewery, the City Light sign, and countless others big and small around the city.
Western Neon doesn’t limit themselves to neon, having mastered LED and other contemporary forms, but neon holds a privileged place in their heart. “From the 1930s to the 70s neon was the solution,” says Dylan Neuwirth, Western Neon’s Creative Director.
In the last decade, neon has experienced a renaissance. In their heyday, neon signs were a symbol of modernism. Even now, the aura of modernism remains. “Maybe it’s the nostalgia for the 80s, but people see it and feel the future,” says Dylan. “It’s millennials looking back and saying the 80s are dope, and it’s people who grew up then saying they’re still dope.”
Dylan explains that while many people see LED signs as being more energy-efficient, neon is comparable or even more efficient. A neon sign runs on about the same amount of electricity as a single incandescent lightbulb. “Neon is an extremely efficient lighting solution,” says Dylan. “It is long-lasting, ecologically sensitive, and sustainable. It uses glass, aluminum, brass, copper, and noble gasses. Everything can be sustainably recycled. We even dispose of the mercury in an ecologically sensitive way.”
For Pagliacci, hanging the restored sign inside the training center at our newest location is more than nostalgia. Those neon letters and all they represent continue to glow and inspire the passion and integrity that make Pagliacci special.