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Lady Bird's Other Legacy: Neon Killer



Lady Bird Johnson campaigned to add light to the world around her by encouraging nature conservation and the planting of beautiful wildflowers that still adorn America's interstate highways.

But the former first lady, who died last week at 94, also did plenty to turn off the lights -- and to nearly end a uniquely American art form.

As a young obituary writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I once wrote about a Richmonder named Louis L. Rudd. He never considered himself an artist. Rather, according to his friends and admirers, he thought of himself more as a simple mechanic. He died in January 2001.

Known to others in his craft as "Mr. Neon," Rudd bent and shaped the delicate gas-filled tubes of electric light that once lit Richmond.

As beautiful and unique as neon art may have been, its charm was lost on a certain first lady. Lady Bird Johnson's "Landscape-Landmark Tour" bus tour of Virginia on May 11, 1965, was the beginning of the end for Rudd's art.

Johnson's husband signed the federal Highway Beautification Act later that year, and this snuffed out the spark for neon benders across the country. It didn't directly ban neon signs, but encouraged their removal through strict regulation of outdoor advertising.

By the 1980s, when neon in shopping malls experienced a resurgence, there were few neon artists left to meet the demand. The craft was nearly lost.

"She [Lady Bird Johnson] said it was gaudy-looking," Rudd once told an interviewer for a documentary film about neon in Richmond. "I thought she was kind of stupid."

That interview, along with a half-dozen surviving pieces of Rudd's lifework, can be found at the Valentine Richmond History Center. Indoor signs he created for Helen's Restaurant, at the corner of Main and Robinson streets, are among his last pieces in public view.

Most of Rudd's other works have long since disappeared from view.

The Universal Ford sign on Broad Street, signs for Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, and the once-blazing red Firestone "F" at the corner of Lombardy and Broad streets all came down long ago. Heilig-Meyers Co. went out of business a decade ago, bringing down Rudd's signs across the country.

A month ago the last surviving example of Rudd's outdoor neon art came down. Mr. Neon's old friend Doug Solyan, owner of Uptown Neon, carefully removed the sign from the old Ritz restaurant at Park and Sheppard streets.

"Back in the heyday, Broad Street and the core city of Richmond was loaded with neon signs. I imagine it lit it up pretty well," says Solyan, who recalls his old friend telling him that he'd work 12-hour days bending neon to meet demand.

By campaigning for beauty, Lady Bird inadvertently "tried to obliterate … something in the realm of Americana," says Solyan, who for the most part says he appreciates her efforts. "Obviously, the woman had all good intentions."

Tell it to Rudd, a man who knew how to paint the town red. S

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