Nestled in a 5,000 square foot workshop on DeKalb Avenue not far from the Krog Street Tunnel, Gregg Brenner and his team at The Neon Company have created neon art, sets for television and movies and signage for decades. Each piece is bent, filled and assembled there by hand.
“We enjoy what we do. I’m proud of what we do. It really is an interesting combination of science and art,” said Brenner, The Neon Company founder.
Since 1983, Brenner’s company has provided neon to over 300 productions: from “Driving Miss Daisy” to current productions like several Marvel movies, “Baby Driver,” “Ozark” and “Stranger Things.” The shop even appeared in “Queer Eye” when staff member Jason was featured.
“The projects we’ve done for Marvel recently is our biggest movie work,” Brenner said, adding “But, to be honest with you, I get a big kick every time “My Cousin Vinny” comes on. I remember being on set watching those people rehearse and laughing so much.”
Brenner’s Inman Park shop houses hundreds of hand-crafted neon signs for rent to the growing film industry. Some are headed to the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect.”
“Movies take down trademark signs and hang up generic signs. They want it to be so real on set,” said shop manager Craig Weido.
You can also find their neon at neighborhood haunts, such as The Vortex, The Majestic, The Family Dog, The Varsity, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and more.
Production starts with design and glass bending, followed by assembly and installation. As neon gas is stimulated by an electric current, it releases electrons that cause the gas inside the colored glass tube to glow. Neon creations last 10 to 40 years, depending on daily use.
“I found something that suited me very well. I was ‘Mr. Science’ in high school, my mom was an artist and my dad was a businessman. Oddly enough – I found something that was this blend of science, business and art,” Brenner said.
While working as a high school science teacher in the early 1980’s, Brenner and his roommate became interested in neon signs.
“We would drive around in our Dodge Dart with our ladder on top. Maybe we would see a liquor store with a sign broken and we would take a wire and bypass the broken tube, take it to an existing neon shop and look over an old guy’s shoulder while he was fixing it,” Brenner said.
Over the next two years, they accumulated more equipment, set up a rudimentary shop in their living room and began the long process of making a “decent tube.”
They quit their day jobs and traded sign-work with Mellow Mushroom to rent space behind Excelsior Mill, which would later become music venue The Masquerade. After they sent their first commercial job out to another sign company, an interesting visitor popped by.
“The door pushed open and an old guy, who might have been my age now, stared at us and the words that came out of his mouth were, ‘Who the hell taught you how to bend glass,’” Brenner recalled.
“He was a grouchy, gray-haired New York union trained neon guy, but he came once a week and for $20 each – he gave us lessons.”
There is a multi-year learning curve to perfect making quality neon, which Brenner compares to learning to play a guitar chord versus making a living as a guitarist in a popular band.
He and his roommate went on to launch different shops with Brenner starting The Neon Company.
“I never ever could have had imagined that I’d be doing it for almost 40 years,” Brenner said.
Today, 50 percent of his business is with the film industry, but they still make commercial signs, like for Grindhouse Killer Burgers in Brookhaven, and respond to community requests.
“We fix beer signs for people. We do work for man caves. Selfie spot work has become very big, for bar mitzvahs and weddings that customers then take home,” Brenner said.
“Basically, you work with the client to make sure it’s not too big for the house but big enough for the reception. For weddings, you can have a green foliage wall with white neon. That’s really big right now,” designer Vyvyan Hughes said.
LED lights have replaced much neon work. At one time, Atlanta boasted 20 neon shops and now there are only a few. That’s why Brenner is grateful to the film industry and jobs from the community.
“I can’t tell you how many times someone’s come in and said ‘this is from my dad – he got this when he was a kid and it got broken,” Weido said, adding “when you hand someone a neon sign – they stop what they are doing – a smile comes across their face.”
“We make people happy,” Brenner said.
Find out more about The Neon Comnpany, visit theneoncompany.com.