If you caught a Broadway show in the last couple of years, you might have seen some neon art lighting up the scenery. What you may not know is that some of those dazzling effects were created in a studio in Long Island City with the luminous name of Krypton Neon.
Founded in 1981 by Kenny Greenberg, and named for the infamous toxin of the Superman comics Greenberg loved as a child, the studio has produced neon scenic art and lighting for many shows.
For “The Threepenny Opera,” large neon signs were used to identify the location of each scene (“The Stable,” “Mr. Peachum’s establishment,” etc.). In the Broadway version of the Who’s “Tommy,” Greenberg’s art transformed the entire stage and part of the audience into a giant pinball machine. Greenberg has also contributed to productions of “Spamalot,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Movin’ Out” and “The Producers,” as well as various film, television, artistic and business projects.
“I do think there is something about the purity of the light,” Greenberg said of neon’s appeal. “Because what you are seeing is the true energy coming from the atom itself. There is no light source where you are getting an actual pure translation of matter to energy.”
Born in Brooklyn and trained at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop (now called Urban Glass), the soft spoken and amiable Greenberg, 56, sees working with neon as his way of combining his interest in both science and art. He speaks about his neon work with a childlike enthusiasm.
“For me it was actually a matter of finding out that neon was made by people by hand,” said Greenberg, adding, “which was something that never occurred to me. As soon as I learned it was a hand craft, I had to find out how to do that.”
He’s been doing it for 25 years now. Krypton Neon moved from its original location to a larger studio space at 5 51 47th Ave. this past June. He ran the studio alone for many years, but in 2002, brought in Tom Unger to help.
Krypton Neon’s light magic is created in a warehouse like setting of long worktables, glass tubes, burners and electrical wiring. Usually working off a design provided by a client, Greenberg or Unger bends a glass tube (which is usually 4 to 5 feet in height and between 1/2 and 5/8 inch in diameter) by rotating and rolling it over burner flames. The heated tube is matched against a fire resistant pattern to make sure it follows the design. The tubes are then connected to form letters or shapes. It can take from a day to a couple of weeks for a project to be completed, depending on its size.
The source of the bright colors comes from two common inert gases: neon, which projects a red color; and an argon mercury mixture that emits ultraviolet light along with visible blue light. The glass tubes can be pre coated with a phosphor mixture that converts the ultraviolet light to various shades of pink, green, gold or white. The gas can either be run through clear tubes, or through colored glass tubes, the method Greenberg prefers because it gives the shades a deeper saturation.
Greenberg feels that neon displays still have a unique and charming character because they are made by hand and have a linear continuous flow of light. “I don’t see a dwindling interest in that at all. If anything, I’m finding more people coming into this shop every day and expressing an interest.”