Over the years, we’ve covered the ups and downs of the neon tango dancers that once graced a building at the corner of Elmwood and Bidwell. The beloved emotionally-charged work of art managed to captivate the imaginations of Buffalonians ever since it was initially installed in 1981-82.
As vibrant and alive as the artwork was, it suffered plenty of breakdowns, which caused it to go dark for years at a time. The last time that anyone saw it was when it was professionally removed, and stored away for safe keeping – that was back in 2015. In the meantime, the work of art has been lovingly cared for and restored by NAS Sign Company thanks to a significant grant from the Buffalo Arts Commission.
“At the time when the sign was originally built, we had the Neon Art Store on Elmwood across from Cole’s Restaurant,” said NAS Sign Company president Paul Strada. “We weren’t qualified at the time to bid on the project. We were the last store on Elmwood to have a neon blue strip. Some 30 years later, it was great to be part of the restoration of the sign (lead image). We had grown from a boutique store to a big neon sign company, working on projects all over the US. By then, we had the neon sign at our new storefront/warehouse near the corner of Elmwood and Amherst. Under the direction of Mike Yost our neon vender, we sandblasted and repainted it, and tried to stay true to the exotic imported neon colors. It took some work finding those colors. We got it up and running, and it was like a disco in here [laughing]. We are so proud to be associated with this work of art – it’s one of the cooler projects that we have worked on.”
It is important to note that Buffalo’s very own Litelab created the lighting control for the illuminated dancers. Litelab also created the controls for the disco dance floor featured in the hit film Saturday Night Fever.
What is especially interesting is that the neon tango dancers were part of an even larger ‘blue neon strip’ project along Elmwood. Most of these neon strips are now burned out and/or broken/missing. There have been some attempts to fix/re-illuminate the strands, but the question today is how many actually remain? There hasn’t been much news on that front in a number of year, though it should always be remembered that the dancers were part of an even broader attempt to electrify and unify “The Strip.”
In a recent BR article, a rendering of 976 Elmwood (now under ownership interest of Douglas Development, teaming up with Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. on an impressive development project), revealed that a side of the building (originally home to the neon dancers) was reserved for a mural. When the rendering was created, the team was not aware of the possibility of returning the dancers to their rightful home.
It was Delaware District Councilmember Joel Feroleto who brought the idea to Jemal, who was excited about the prospect, and felt strongly that the “moving” work of art should be returned to the site.
“I spoke with Doug Jemal (Douglas Development) two weeks ago and told him about the iconic tango dancers,” said Feroleto. “He immediately said that he would love to have it returned to its original location. I then connected Doug and the Buffalo Arts Commission, and the Commission will be voting on it later this month. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from Elmwood Village residents!”
“At the end of the day you have to be a good community member,” said Jemal, when I asked him what the project meant to him. “I never come in and do something, and not be a part of the fiber of the community. The dancers are that fiber. It didn’t have a home. I feel that it’s divine intervention – to come back to its original home… like Lassie Come Home. Look up right now and you will see the blank spot and see the faded marking where its once appeared. It’s very cool that it will (hopefully) come full circle. My whole life has been dedicated to what was once can be again. At the turn of the century they were smart for what they built in Buffalo. But look at how much of the Buffalo fiber has been destroyed due to stupidity – it’s a crime to knock these things down and build the crap that they build… stuff that looks like it should be in South Carolina next to a highway. I found a spot that I like (in Buffalo) and a community that I care about. Everyone loves to be appreciated – my hope is that Buffalo appreciates someone that is for real, that invests into the city, hires its people, and restores the buildings (and artwork when possible).”
As for the actual dancers, part of the Buffalo City Arts Collection, they were designed by artist and illustrator, Laura Rankin, who wrote to Buffalo Rising in 2007, recounting her memories of the process to bring the dancers (and the blue neon strips) to life for the first time. At the time that she wrote about her thoughts, an effort was underway to restore the dancers, which was successful, though years later they would go dark again.
Boy, this takes me back…
I think we put that project together somewhere between 1980 and 1982. (The actual year can be found on the copyright date in the lower right hand corner of the Tango sign.) I haven’t been on Elmwood Ave. for over 10 years so I didn’t realize that the Tango Dancers and the blue neon lines were in such disrepair. Bravo to the Buffalo Argentine Tango Society, Councilmember Joseph Golembek, and Barbra Kavanaugh for creating and finding the resources to restore it. Thank you!
At the time, it was an exciting project to work on. Dan Sack, Andy Ferullo and I were invited to participate, and I designed the Tango Dancer billboard. I think I still have the original drawings from the project. (I hope I do. They were here somewhere last time I checked.) I’d never done anything for a moving neon piece and all the criteria I had to be mindful of was challenging, especially the number of times neon could overlap (2, not 3). Then I had to draw the thing to scale–10′ x 20′–on these huge rolls of brown paper that were tacked to the wall in a neon shop on the West side. (I can’t remember the name of the shop.)
Anyway, the project has a special place in my heart.
I thought the blue we chose for the neon lines on the buildings was gorgeous. (I have a memory that the particular blue had to be imported from Germany because the richness of the color wasn’t available in the states at that time. We looked at dozens of neon color samples.)
Also, I can’t tell you how fitting it is that the Tango society wants to restore it –and not just because of the obvious Tango billboard. The blue neon lines on the buildings were purposely designed to be of different lengths as well as at different heights from the ground. It’s more interesting from a design point of view, sure, but the concept was that the lines would represent a kind of ‘visual music’ as you looked, or drove, down Elmwood Avenue.
The blue neon created a visual rhythm… maybe even a Tango…
I especially loved the blue neon lines on a rainy Buffalo night: how they seemed to be everywhere–on the buildings, splashing in the street, on the sidewalks, in windows, on faces, and sliding over passing cars.
Lead image courtesy NAS Sign Company