News / Toronto

Does Toronto need a neon sign museum?

The Downtown Yonge BIA has begun collecting and restoring some of Toronto's iconic neon signs and wants to display them in a local laneway.

In the 1980s, Yonge Street was awash in neon signs, including emblems for A&A Records and Sam the Chinese Food Man. The Downtown Yonge BIA is looking into turning O’Keefe Laneway near Yonge and Dundas Square into an outdoor signage museum to commemorate the street’s visual heritage.

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In the 1980s, Yonge Street was awash in neon signs, including emblems for A&A Records and Sam the Chinese Food Man. The Downtown Yonge BIA is looking into turning O’Keefe Laneway near Yonge and Dundas Square into an outdoor signage museum to commemorate the street’s visual heritage.

Downtown Yonge Street in the early '80s was a neon-soaked jungle.

The electric signs for Zanzibar strip club, Sam the Chinese Food Man, the Rio grindhouse cinema, and A&A Records cut through the night in a blaze of colour.

Much of that neon signage has since vanished, a casualty of new sign bylaws and sky-high material costs.

But neon could still make a comeback on Yonge Street, says Mark Garner, the executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA.

The BIA is looking for partners interested in turning O'Keefe Lane into an outdoor signage museum.

The laneway, which runs parallel to Yonge Street south of Dundas Street, would showcase famous Toronto signs neon and explore the histories of the businesses that owned them.

"Torontonians generally have what I call historical amnesia. They forget the legacy of iconic buildings and signs," Garner said.

"Signage has been such an iconic thing for Toronto that we need to preserve it."

The A&A Records sign is among Yonge Street's most iconic neon emblems.

City of Toronto Archives

The A&A Records sign is among Yonge Street's most iconic neon emblems.

The BIA has already started a collection of Yonge Street signs that includes Sunrise records and Big Slice Pizza. The famous Sam the Record Man sign, which is currently being restored ahead of reinstallation at Yonge-Dundas Square, could form part of the exhibit, too.

Last month, Toronto photographer Tanja-Tiziana published a book on North America's vanishing neon signs. She feels many of Toronto’s “legendary” neon signs are worthy of display.

"They need to be within a distance from us and the street so they have that same effect. So we can see their detail, paint work, and walk through their light by night," she said.

Garner said the BIA is in contact with Markle Brothers, who created many famous Yonge Street neon signs, including Sam the Record Man, about the possibility of restoring lost signs from the original blueprints.

"We're trying to find like-minded, like-hearted people that thing it's a great project to help bring it to fruition," he said.