Dave Waller of Brickyard VFX
Dave Waller appreciates the art of grabbing attention. That’s evident from the work of Brickyard VFX, his Leather District agency that expertly creates Hollywood-level visual effects used in everything from Cadillac and Comcast advertisements to museum installations. And it’s evident from his personal passion as a collector of more than 200 vintage neon signs: big bulb-equipped beasts that scream various slogans and names of iconic New England businesses, theaters and products. One sign came from Ellis the Rim Man, a defunct, famed Allston auto shop. Another, advertising a pair of booty-popping dancers in high heels, came from Club 66—a strip club that inhabited the red light-tinged Combat Zone, not far from where Brickyard now stands.
“I love that each is unique and one-of-a-kind,” Waller says, noting that he’s had a soft spot for these signs ever since he rescued his first, which he found while riding his bike by a junkyard at age 9. Today he loads otherwise dump-destined discards (and occasional auction wins) into his flatbed pickup truck, amassing a cache of regional history along the way. “I’ve also come to appreciate that each sign is just a stepping-off point for connecting the history of what a place meant to people.”
Waller remembers once showing up to a West Roxbury football field with a glowing neon sign he got from a late local fried chicken restaurant. The glowing 12-foot-tall neon hen—wearing an apron and beckoning with one outstretched wing—won plenty of fans and smiles. “It was probably a lot of people’s first date spot,” Waller says, pleased. He clearly got the biggest charge of all.
Other neon artifacts earn new life as decor in Boston-area restaurants, from an old-school pharmacy sign that hangs in Harvard Square’s farm-to-table hit Alden & Harlow to a tuxedo shop sign that brightens the dining room of West End Johnnie’s. For Waller, signs are central to a broader interior aesthetic based on salvaged items. The 8,000-square-foot Brickyard VFX office, housed inside a 100-year-old former factory, makes use of an 1860-built mahogany desk from the U.S. customhouse in Bath, Maine (so massive it was installed by crane), a bar taken from the old Charley’s Saloon on Newbury Street, reclaimed parking garage windows, machine shop doors—and, of course, signs from Scollay Square and the old Exeter Street Theatre.
Even Waller’s own home is repurposed. He and his wife live in a former fire station in Malden. They temporarily disassembled its brick facade to install the 30-foot-long Apple Tree Diner car, a former Dedham roadside-dining cart that they now use as a home office. Steel from the MBTA’s old, elevated Orange Line was reused to build stairs and walkways, and a token booth is outfitted as a DJ booth for house parties.
Right now, Waller is most excited to be working with Beyond Walls, a public art initiative in his hometown of Lynn, on plans to gussy up the gritty downtown using neon signs from his private collection. It’s a poignant project that brings his passion-provoking childhood bike ride full circle.