Rescue The Diving Lady!

starlite motel Rescue The Diving Lady!

Mesa’s infamous Starlite Motel diving lady sign was torn down by a storm on October 5th.  But, have no fear, there are rescue attempts being made!

(Courtesy of Jim WalshArizona Republic)

Mesa’s iconic neon diving-lady sign sits crumpled in the Starlite Motel parking lot, its sheet-metal housing dented and its shattered neon tubing stripped by scavengers intent on preserving a memory.

But fans of neon signs, historic preservationists and city officials alike want to see the lady make her graceful, gaudy swan dive again along East Main Street.

Minal Patel, son of motel owner Bob Patel, said he has received hundreds of e-mails from supporters who want to see the sign repaired or replaced with a replica since it was sheared from its pole during a storm Oct. 5.

Minal is collecting three bids for restoring the sign, which he will submit to an insurance company.

He’s also meeting with Mesa officials this week to discuss reinstalling the sign, even though it’s too tall to comply with the city’s sign ordinance.

Meanwhile, Mesa historian and preservationist Vic Linoff is leading a drive to incorporate a non-profit group, the Mesa Historic Preservation Foundation, so it can collect contributions to restore the sign as well as preserve Mesa’s other fading icons.

“If we could work together, it would be a great accomplishment to see the sign up and running again,” Linoff said.

But it’s uncertain whether that’s even possible.

Stanford Russon, 89, of Lehi, Utah, the artist whose lifelike sketch was set in motion for 50 years by the handiwork of the late neon virtuoso Paul Millet, said the level of damage to the sheet-metal boxes that make up the sign is critical. He said new pieces of neon tubing would need to be bent and retrofitted into the sign.

“There were actually three different diving girls. I would say it could be rebuilt,” said Russon, who has not inspected the damage. “The unit that makes up the girl, if they weren’t damaged too badly, I would say it wouldn’t be hard to put it back together.”

Patel said four of the sign’s eight metal boxes were damaged when it fell, with pieces on the top dented the most. One metal figure of the woman was badly dented; the other two sustained lesser damage.

He said some people are urging him to replace the 78-foot tall flashing sign with a replica, but Larry Graham, a Mesa neon-sign maker and protege of Millet, disagrees.

“I’d rather restore it. That piece is famous,” Graham said. “That’s a nostalgic piece. That was one of his (Millet’s) better pieces.”

Graham said he would like to submit a bid for restoring the diving lady and plans to contact Patel.

It does not appear Mesa will block the restoration efforts, even though city ordinance bars any sign more than 12 feet tall and no longer allows blinking neon signs.

Gordon Sheffield, the city’s zoning administrator, said only the Buckhorn Baths sign has been designated as historical by the City Council. That means Patel would have to go before the Mesa Board of Adjustment for a public hearing to win approval.

Sheffield recommends Patel put together an application for a “comprehensive sign plan,” which would allow the board to evaluate the sign based on historical value.

“I have never heard anyone say anything bad about that sign,” he said.

Rob Nelson, Millet’s grandson, said that if his grandfather were alive, “he’d be leading the charge to put it back up, I can guarantee you that.”

The sign was one of his grandfather’s few remaining large signs, he said.

An 80-foot-tall cowboy with a lasso at the Roundup Theatre, a Glendale drive-in, no longer exists, so the diving lady “was one of his crown jewels,” he said.

Nelson added that Millet built a smaller sign in front of the motel in 1959, and built the diving lady a year later.

His bill was $6,000. Millet and Nelson restored the sign in 1999, repainted it, replaced some neon, transformers, wiring and whatever else was needed. That job cost $6,000 as well.

Even if it can be salvaged, Nelson said the sign would never be the same, kind of like when a band’s lead dies and a new singer takes over. But he still would love to see it back up again, with as much salvaged pieces as possible.


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