Lights going out on neon industry

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“I hate to admit it, but they are just too damn good,” Patrick Bolduc said as he talked about the new LED signs that are replacing traditional neon. 

Bolduc is one of only a handful of crafters left on the East Coast who create and repair neon signs and artwork. He operates his business, Beacon Neon, from his home in Auburn. His primary job is working for Neokraft signs in Lewiston.

“It’s a dying industry, for sure,” he said. “The time and expense it takes to produce a neon sign is so much more than what is mass-produced with molded plastic and LED lights.” The majority of his work these days is repairing and refurbishing older neon signs.

There are still a few businesses that like the look of the traditional neon, and he occasionally gets someone wanting a unique piece of art. But the price for neon compared to LED is so significant, businesses usually opt for the least costly item. 

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“It’s a skill that requires a steep learning curve, patience and a strict adherence to safety,” he said. The equipment is expensive, and there are few left to teach the craft. Also, working with glass, mercury, high voltages and fire can be dangerous.   

One of the more famous pieces he created was the Indian head for the Empire Grill featured in the HBO movie “Empire Falls,” which was filmed in Maine.

“I was really irked when I got a call telling me that the movie producers worked on it to make it look old and rewired it so some of the letters did not work,” Bolduc said. “And it made that humming sound and flickering like you see in all the old movies. I know it adds to the drama and all, but I don’t think it was really that way, you know.”

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