Diving Lady sign

Scott Houston works on repairing the 'Diving Lady' sign at Graham's Neon in Mesa.

Mike Sakal, Tribune

Work is underway to restore a Mesa neon icon that residents and motorists were used to seeing for 50 years and place it on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.

Portions of the nationally known Diving Lady neon sign of the Starlite Motel in east Mesa have been taken apart and she's on the "operating table" at Graham's Neon Electric Sign Specialists in Mesa so workers can see what's needed to fix her. The 78-foot tall neon sign, which features a bikini-clad lady in three stages of a springboard dive, needs to be completely rebuilt.

"We're figuring out how we're going to make her look pretty again," said Larry Graham, owner of Graham's Neon, who has brought two workers on board full-time to help restore the sign. Graham is donating $6,000 worth of labor toward the $65,000 restoration project.

But the Mesa Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit group, is pushing for more donations to cover the overall cost. Nearly half of the cost needed to repair the sign has been raised in the last few months, but fundraising momentum slowed down during the holidays and the time it took the Mesa Preservation Board to file paperwork to establish itself as a nonprofit organization to be eligible to accept tax-exempt donations.

The Diving Lady sign along with the five letters of the neon MOTEL sign that fronted the Starlite Motel at 2710 E. Main Street came crashing down during a severe thunderstorm in October when a welding point on its pole from a previous repair snapped, causing her to do a belly-flop onto the concrete parking lot. Because of the broken neon, the dents and the rust on all eight components on the sign, a total rebuild job needs to be done so she can return to the springboard.

"She's going under the knife, or the grinding wheel as we say," said Scott Houston, who is on the team to help repair the Diving Lady. "It's a careful process because we plan to make it look like it did or should look. It's fun, too."

The Diving Lady was a beacon in Mesa during an era when roadside lodging was sought by families traveling long distances by car. The sign has appeared in numerous books and magazines and has been featured in numerous photography exhibits.

The restoration work began this week after Bob Patel, and his son, Minal, the owners of the Starlite received a $10,000 insurance check to help cover the costs of the sign. The Patels turned over the check to the Mesa Preservation Foundation, which has a goal of seeing the sign restored by summertime.

In addition to the $10,000 insurance check, the Scottsdale office of Hunt Construction is donating the pole for the sign, an estimated $12,000 value. The Rio Salado Architect Foundation also awarded the preservation foundation a $2,500 Rich Goewey Community Services grant to help with the project because of the sign's historical significance.

Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation, was scheduled to be interviewed Saturday by Ron Berthal, a global travel reporter for WJFF (90.5-FM), the National Public Radio station in New York for a program to be aired at a later date.

"We'd like to start ramping up fundraising efforts to get the sign restored and start the application process to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks," Linoff said. "We plan to put together a summary telling why the Diving Lady is there, and what it means to the city and the history of neon signs, which Mesa has played a big part of."


CONTACT WRITER: (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com

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