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The Dalles up in lights: National Neon Sign Museum brightens up the Columbia River Gorge

THE DALLES, Ore. – Three years ago, this Columbia River burg gave Vancouver neon sign collector David Benko one of its most distinguished landmarks – a 1910, Colonial-style Elks Temple.

The city even threw in a new roof.

All it asked in return was that Benko convert the building into the sort of tourist destination he had envisioned for more than a decade.

Oh, one other stipulation: the town wanted everything ready by summer 2017.

Benko badly missed the deadline due to delays in getting architectural drawings, plus major renovation challenges, including disposing of more than 350,000 pounds of garbage, “not counting metal,” to make room for new plumbing, wiring and walls.

Now, Benko’s National Neon Sign Museum is finally ready to open its doors to the public.

Well … almost ready.

“It’s not exactly the way I want it yet,” he acknowledged recently, but some urban renewal grant money came with the condition that Benko open the museum’s doors by April 3.

“Our official soft opening is April 27,” which coincides with the start of the local cherry festival. But Benko won’t charge the normal $10 admission until the museum’s grand opening Aug. 10, when the Mid-Columbia Car Club hosts its annual Neon Cruise Weekend.

By then, all the museum’s exhibits will be on view, including a replica jewelry store, barber shop, hot-rod display, TV and radio store, shoe shop, pharmacy, ice cream parlor and women’s clothing store, along with hundreds of advertising signs and associated ephemera.

Benko was uniquely qualified to put together such an ambitious project. His passion for nostalgia dates back to his childhood in Kirkland, Wash.

“I come from a family of collectors,” Benko explained. “My uncle had a huge inventory of old clocks, including pre-American and early American ones. Some ended up in the Smithsonian.

“And my dad, a Boeing engineer, had 500 wristwatches when I cleaned out his house. It was a bit out of control.”

Benko started collecting comic books when he was about 8.

“I realized early on that if you bought a new comic for 35 cents, it was worth 10 cents the next month, whereas if you bought an older one for $1, it kept going up in value. What I didn’t learn right away was that condition is everything.”

At 10, Benko started collecting glass insulators, a hobby that gradually morphed into a jones for signs.

“After high school, when I moved to California to attend film school, I met a guy whose house was so packed with juke boxes and neon signs you could barely walk around it. That inspired me.”

Two weeks later, Benko acquired his first neon sign for free – a clock outside a former insurance office that read “Time to Insure.”

By the later ’80s, Benko was back home and apprenticing under Ron Cole, “a legend in the Seattle neon sign industry.”

Once he began making and repairing neon signs himself, Benko discovered people were fascinated by the process of bending glass tubes to form words and images. So in 1994, he moved to Vancouver, Wash., and opened Rocket City Neon in nearby Camas, where he built a mock gas station, dairy and diner along with a thriving neon sign business.

Within months, newspapers and TV stations were featuring Rocket City Neon as a business-cum-museum. One newscaster also referred to it as a reception hall, “which it wasn’t,” Benko insisted. “But the following Monday, I had two dozen messages on my answering machine – people asking to hold their wedding reception or car-club meeting at my shop.

“During the month of December, I didn’t even do neon work because we were so busy with Christmas parties.”

Word spread, and in 1998 Benko was asked to curate the fledgling American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, which he did long-distance until 2002.

Soon afterward, he got a call from Vancouver’s economic development director inviting Benko to put together a destination neon sign museum.

“We met for 10 years,” Benko said of the blue-ribbon committee assembled by Vancouver and Portland, “but we never found the right place.”

In 2015, someone told Benko about an amazing building that would be perfect for his collection, in The Dalles, 84 miles east of Portland in the Columbia Gorge.

“I was skeptical at first, because it was so far from a metropolitan area. But late one night I typed the building’s address into Google, and I couldn’t believe how super cool it was. So I woke my wife up at 2 a.m. and said, ‘We’re going to The Dalles tomorrow.’ ”

Benko recalled the building was for sale for about $400,000, and not in good shape. “As we walked through it, I could envision a theater and display rooms and a gift shop. But we couldn’t afford it.”

Undeterred, the real-estate agent passed Benko’s name along to local officials. Meetings and proposals ensued, and eventually the city offered to purchase the building, pay for a new $60,000 roof, and let Benko have it for $1.

Since then, he has spent more than $500,000 on renovations – about half his own money, plus donations – and expects to spend that much again on finishing touches.

And that figure doesn’t include the value of his personal collection, which numbers around 300 rare signs, plus thousands of other artifacts.

(Benko declined to put a value on individual signs – they’re more like family than objects. But he admitted with a tinge of regret, “I once bid $65,000 that I didn’t have on a sign and was outbid!”)

Among those he hopes to hang at the museum is a 19-foot-long female diver promoting Jantzen swimwear.

Benko also plans to add a neon-sign-making shop on the first floor of the three-story building, along with three classrooms and a neon apprenticeship shop.

In this age of LED lights and jumbotrons, will people go out of their way to rediscover the magic of neon?

Benko and The Dalles believe they will.

Besides the constant flow of motorists traversing Oregon via Interstate 84, each year riverboats drop off about 18,000 tourists at The Dalles’ dock.

“One company approached us about buying 10,000 tickets before we even opened.”

Hmmm … that’s certainly an encouraging sign.

Pocket travel guide: The Dalles

Eighty-four miles east of Portland (and 269 miles southwest of Spokane), The Dalles is home to around 15,000 residents. The city’s name comes from the French word dalle or “flagstone,” and refers to the columnar basalt rocks carved by the adjacent Columbia River.

The site was a major Indian trading center for at least 10,000 years. Lewis and Clark camped nearby in 1805.

More recently, the city has produced a Pulitzer Prize winner (“Honey in the Horn” author H.L. Davis), Beat poet Phillip Whalen, a handful of Major League Baseball players, and “Survivor: Palau” contestant Jennifer Lyon.

Among the city’s most popular tourist attractions:

Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum (www.gorgediscovery.org) offers exhibits devoted to Native American history, the fur trade, missionaries, frontier life and river transportation, as well as live raptor presentations.

Fort Dalles Museum (fortdallesmuseum.com) opened in 1905, making it one of Oregon’s oldest. Its collection includes pioneer and military artifacts, along with antique wagons.

The Dalles Lock and Dam (www.nwp.usace.army.mil/Locations/ColumbiaRiver/TheDalles.aspx) is one to the country’s 10 largest hydropower producers. Guided tours begin at the The Dalles Dam Visitor Center.

Big Jim’s Drive In (www.bigjimsdrivein.com) is a half-century-old establishment that proudly advertises its selection as “GOOD food, NOT fast food.” Other popular eateries include Lilo’s Hawaiian BBQ and Baldwin Saloon.

Local wineries include Sunshine Mill (www.sunshinemill.com), 15 Mile winery (www.15milewinery.com) and Moody Toll Bridge Winery (https://moodytollbridgewinery.wordpress.com).

Klindt’s Booksellers (www.klindtsbooks.com) is the state’s oldest bookstore, dating back to 1870.

Spending the night? Check out the downtown Dalles Inn, Cousins’ Country Inn west of town (www.cousinscountryinn.com) or Celilo Inn overlooking Dalles Dam (www.celiloinn.com).