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At Bartush: Seven decades and counting of eye-allure

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Henry Gerhard’s skill in hand-cutting materials of all types has been honed over the last 37 years at Bartush Signs in Orwigsburg.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Henry Gerhard’s skill in hand-cutting materials of all types has been honed over the last 37 years at Bartush Signs in Orwigsburg.

Felix Bartush Sr. used money from his GI Bill to put himself through neon school and then started Bartush Signs Inc. in his mother-in-law’s garage in 1944.

The concepts, design, manufacturing, installation and maintenance work of Bartush Signs can be seen throughout a good portion of Pennsylvania as well as other states in the mid-Atlantic region.

“Signs of today communicate valuable and necessary information through words, images and varied additional messages like familiarity, curiosity, temptation, security, well-being and excitement,” Felix Bartush Jr. said.

He said signs can draw people together in a community sense at churches, municipal centers and schools.

“Our world is so fast that signs, with their images and concise information, are perfectly suited to quickly and efficiently deliver pertinent information, either for immediate action or to store for future use,” Bartush said.

PLEXIGLAS

The Schuylkill County company has seen the evolution of sign-making.

Most of its signs involved Plexiglas flat faces in cabinets, with lamps behind them to illuminate them, in the 1950s, 1960s and majority of the 1970s.

An employee, Lenny Frack, a neon tube bender, noted that neon signs had considerable popularity in the 1930s but that this dropped in the 1960s. A neon revival occurred in the mid-1970s through the 1980s, thanks in part to channel letters becoming a new norm. (Channel letters are internally illuminated with front, middle and back portions.)

“But exposed neon has its own look,” Frack said. “It’s bright, colorful and it can be used to look both modern and retro, as in old theater signs.”

STILL A ROLE FOR NEON

A scarcity of neon benders such as Frack and the fragility of the material are two reasons Bartush signs no longer use neon behind plastic in channel letters – yet neon on its own is still used.

Other reasons are that light-emitting diode bulbs use far less energy and their installation requires less time and skill compared to neon-bending.

“Neon is difficult to transport, and repairs are costly and take time,” said Natalie Bartush, a manager and the daughter of Bartush Jr.

Frack added there’s no substitute for the “eye-lure” of neon signs, so it still has demand with interesting projects for clients.

NOSTALGIA

By the 1980s, electronic message boards with details such as time and temperature were in their infancy, Bartush Jr. said about what is today’s norm.

A niche part of the business is repairing and restoring nostalgic theater signs but also creating new ones with an old-time feel, Natalie Bartush said.

Bank mergers in the past few years also have led to more business, including BB&T taking over National Penn Bank locations.

SIGNS FOR RED ROBIN

Restaurants are a big market, too.

“They’ve done signs for all of our 21 locations,” said Scott Welch of Red Robin-Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group based in Upper Macungie Township. “They also did the sign in front of our corporate office.”

In addition to main building signs, Bartush Signs makes indoor eclectically designed “YUMMM” signs for all of the restaurants which Welch oversees.

“They’re service oriented, a very easy group of professionals to work with and a true business partner, not just a vendor of ours,” he said.

‘PERSONAL PRIDE’

Bartush Signs created several signs for PBS39’s SteelStacks Campus in Bethlehem.

“The signs represent the quality and creativity which is housed inside the building,” said Tim Fallon, CEO of Lehigh Valley Public Television Corp., also known as PBS39.

“They have seen it all, know how to deal with it all and have their personal pride in every single project,” Fallon said.

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