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|The photos on this page were moved here from my Signs section to accompany an article I wrote for the Society for Commercial Archeology's Journal magazine.|
Roto-Sphere signs are perhaps the biggest and most dramatic neon signs ever mass-produced. They were created and produced by Warren Milks from 1960-1971. Milks made approximately 234 of them and only about 17 of them are left. Of these, only seven are fully operational. Roto-Spheres were promoted as sign add-ons and distributed nationwide, with a few sent outside the country. This map that I created shows their exact distribution.
Contrary to what many people say, Roto-Spheres were not inspired by satellites or anything space age. Milks got the idea for the design from something he saw on TV. While many of us thought the inspiration might have come from Playhouse 90, Milks didn't think that was it when I showed him the video. He thought it was a commercial for a children's toy or a spinning Christmas ornament. When people began calling his signs "Sputniks", Milks began using the name himself. However, the signs were always marketed as Roto-Spheres. Milks passed away in 2012.
Roto-Spheres feature sixteen aluminum spikes outlined in neon. These multi-colored spikes are each eight feet long. They are mounted on a ball that spins in three directions. Not only does the sign rotate on its pole, but the ball itself is composed of two counter-rotating hemispheres. A motor and three gears resembling an automobile's rear axle differential are used to power the ball. Sign shops made repairs with auto parts but Milks swore he did not use them at all in the construction of these signs. Restoring and maintaining Roto-Spheres can be tricky and costly due to their size, mechanics, and the amount of neon used. I believe the original sign cost about $2,000 with shipping. To fully restore one today costs about $15,000. Here is the patent for the Roto-Sphere design.
|Joe's Liquor Store
|El Comedor de Anayas Restaurant
Joe's Liquor Store opened in 1962. A newspaper advertisement announcing the store's Grand Opening featured a photo of its Roto-Sphere with the caption "At the Sign of the Sputnik". By the mid-1970s, their sign had fallen into serious disrepair.
In 1999, Joe's Liquor Store's new owners decided to have their sign restored. They were able to raise the full $12,000 needed through a fundraising event. This "Sputnik Relaunch Party" drew about 450 people from the community and featured live bands, a silent auction, and a fireworks display. The restoration took three months. Since then, Sputnik's motor has been replaced three or four times and it is now completely electric. Although the neon is extra-strength, about two tubes break each year and require replacement. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2.
The El Comedor de Anayas Restaurant opened in 1952 and their Roto-Sphere sign was installed sometime in the 1960s. Their sign had deteriorated so badly over the years that the spikes were practically paint-free. However, in 2002, their Roto-Sphere was selected as one of nine vintage Route 66 signs to be restored with grant money. This sign features a four-way flasher that illuminates the four colors of spikes independently. However, the motor has been broken for several years and the sign no longer spins. For more, see these websites: 1, 2, and 3.
The Jenkins Lincoln-Mercury Roto-Sphere was installed around 1960. It had fallen into disrepair over the years but was completely restored in 2007. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2.
The Catalina Motel Roto-Sphere is installed on the roof. It is no longer lit and does not spin. The star at the top of the motel's freestanding neon sign appears to mimic the Roto-Sphere. For more, see these websites: 1, 2, and 3
The Memory Lane Roto-Sphere was originally installed in Bean Station, TN at a truckstop/gas station. It was later moved to a go-kart track. The Eldridges bugged the owners for years and finally got the sign for their collection of Americana. They had it restored and the arms painted red, white and blue. I've been told that the sign spins. For more, see these websites: 1, 2, and 3.
The Dort Mall Roto-Sphere was originally located at Walli's Drive-In Restaurant in Flint, MI. It was fully restored and installed here as part of Bob Perani's sign collection around 2004.
|Starlite Country Plaza
Salt Lake City, UT
The Starlite Country Plaza sign was adapted from the Starlite Motel which previously stood on the property. This Roto-Sphere is now missing the neon and one of the arms is missing. For more, see this website.
Granite Furniture opened here in 1910. The Roto-Sphere sign was installed around 1964 as part of a building remodeling. The Roto-Sphere was originally painted gold and was outlined with orange neon. The lower part of the sign with the text spins in an opposite direction from the revolving Roto-Sphere above. The panels that spell out "Granite" were red in the 1970s and were possibly that color originally.
At some point, the Roto-Sphere was painted turquoise and the plastic panels were replaced with new ones. Although the Roto-Sphere counter-rotated originally, it has only revolved on the pole for decades. These photos are from 2008.
Granite Furniture closed in 2004. In 2013, the building was redeveloped and the sign was adapted. The sign's panels and lettering were changed to Sugarhouse and the names of the new tenants. The Roto-Sphere remains the original color and is still lit with orange neon. It still spins and the text sign below it still spins in the opposite direction. For more, see these websites: 1, 2, and 3. [first day photo thanks samwibatt; night photo thanks Ellie]
South Bend, IN
|The Factory Tile Roto-Sphere does not spin but the multi-colored neon still works. When it stopped rotating around 1979, the company decided it was too costly to repair. However, the neon is maintained and the diamonds around "Tile" flash on and off. For more, see this website.|
The Brighton Roto-Sphere was installed in 1964 opposite the Grand Hotel. Sometime after 1990, the neon was removed and the arms were dressed up with "festoon lights". It was nearly destroyed in 1995 during a "clean-up" of the seafront. A private collector has had it since then and is trying to raise funds to restore the sign with hopes of reinstalling it in Brighton. For more, see this website. [photo thanks Jonathan Swain]
The Action Pawn Roto-Sphere no longer has neon and no longer spins. This one might have come from the 1st National Bank of Killeen that was located in town. [scan thanks Robby Delius] For more, see this website.
|Jerry Dutler's Bowl
The Long Holiday Motel has a Roto-Sphere with a working motor but the sign is not operated. The owner has found it to be too expensive and impractical to repair the neon given the area's severe weather. She believes that this Roto-Sphere was brought here by truck from Las Vegas. "Long" was the original owner's last name. The motel opened in 1957 as Long's Holiday Motel. The sign may date from that time with the Roto-Sphere being added in the early 1960s. This photo was taken in 2006. In 2011, the sign was repainted. For more, see this website. [photo thanks Glenda Campbell]
The Jerry Dutler's Bowl Roto-Sphere was installed in 1965 when the bowling alley opened. In 1980, the motor gave out and it was not replaced. However, the sign is still lit at night. Dutler's restored the sign in 2007 with multi-colored neon. They were investigating the cost of getting it spinning again but nothing has happened with that. For more, see this website.
The Jarrell Company sign has been here since 1964. Their Roto-Sphere hasn't rotated for many years and the neon has been removed. In 2007, they were considering restoring the sign. However, as of 2008, I don't believe anything has been done.
the inventor and producer of the Roto-Sphere
The Shreveport Neon Roto-Sphere was restored in 2007. This sign came from the long-gone Holiday Manor Motel in Bossier City, LA. This was the second Roto-Sphere that Warren Milks created. The first was installed in front of NESCO, his sign shop, in Bossier City. Shreveport Neon has another disassembled Roto-Sphere in storage at their shop. For more, see this website.
Warren Milks posed above with the Shreveport sign which was just a few miles from his home. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times and presenting him with a set of vintage Christmas ornaments which resemble the Roto-Sphere design. In the photo above, he explained how the star-like designs spun on the TV show that captivated him.
San Antonio, TX
Mel's Diner has a simulated Roto-Sphere. The sign shop created it from scratch based on memory of the Roto-Sphere that was once installed at Hopper's Drive-in in Lafayette, LA. The whereabouts of that sign is unknown. This sign uses propane tank tops screwed together to make the central sphere just like Milks original design. There are only ten arms while real Roto-Spheres had 18. The arms themselves are flat. The neon flashes but the sign does not spin in any way. For more, see this website. [first two photos thanks Glenda Campbell]
Southwest Signs built this sign themselves around 1995. The ball came from a former Roto-Sphere that the sign shop had in storage for many years. The Roto-Sphere was originally installed at a local hamburger chain stand. There was nothing left but the sphere itself. The arms were completely recreated based on memory. They are outlined with red, white and blue LED tubing rather than neon. The sign does not spin in any way.
Jefferson City, MO
The Downtown Plaza Roto-Sphere was located in Gallup, NM. It has been in storage at a sign shop in Albuquerque since 2006. The sign's arms are stashed in a corner. The sign shop will restore the Roto-Sphere if the owner ever comes forward with the money. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2.
The Lakeside Motel sign must have been inspired by the Roto-Sphere. With its faceted sphere and its flat arms, there's no way that it could have been built as one. This motel, now closed, probably went by a different name originally.
Eastwood Mall Bowling Center (Birmingham, AL) in storage]
Holiday Inn (Anaheim, CA) [vintage; sign gone]
Sun Star Motel (Los Banos, CA) [vintage; sign gone]
Sunshine Beach Motel (Daytona Beach, FL) [gone; scan thanks Tim Hollis]
Municipal Auto Sales (Miami, FL) [gone]
unknown business (Dubuque, IA) [gone]
Stardust Motor Lodge (Idaho Falls, ID) [gone]
Circle Chevrolet (Chicago, IL) [gone]
Nickey Chevrolet (Chicago, IL) [two signs; gone]
Jennie's Fine Foods (Chicago, IL) [gone]
Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet (Elmhurst, IL) [gone]
Italian Village Restaurant (Moline, IL) [gone; scan thanks Rich}
Sam's Highland Park Bowl (Moline, IL) [gone]
Dinnie's Restaurant (Richmond, IN) [gone; photos anyone?]
Satellite Drive-Inn (Albion, MI) [gone]
Lou Fusz Auto Group (St. Louis, MO)
Showboat Hotel Casino (Las Vegas, NV) [gone]
Burger Boy Food-O-Rama: 1, 2, 3 (Columbus, OH) [gone; scans thanks Robby Delius]
East Hills Shopping Center (Pittsburgh, PA) [gone]
South of the Border: 1, 2 (Dillon, SC) [both gone]
Mammy's Kitchen (Myrtle Beach, SC) [gone]
Clover Inn (Santee, SC) [gone]
Country Inn (Lubbock, TX) [sign gone]
Paice Motel (Beaver, UT) [most likely a Roto-Sphere; gone]
Columbian Motel (Provo, UT) [possibly a Roto-Sphere; gone]
Burger Boy Food-O-Rama (Charleston, WV) [vintage; gone]
Burger Boy Food-O-Rama (Morgantown, WV) [vintage; gone]
Burger Boy Food-O-Rama (Parkersburg, WV) [vintage; gone]
Flame Motel (Jackson, WY) [gone]
car dealership (location unknown; scan thanks Vintage Roadside)
If you know of any other Roto-Spheres out there, I'd be thrilled to hear about them.
Scans of Milks' promotional brochure can be found here.
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