By Brett Buckner
Douglas Leigh was The Sign King, the Lamplighter of Broadway.
“He’s responsible for some of the most famous images in American history,” says Darcy Tell, author of Times Square Spectacular, a history of the New York City’s Times Square. “To put it in marketing terms – he didn’t invent the brand, but he perfected it.”
But before he was hailed by the New York Times as “the dazzling impresario of electrical splendor,” the “spiritual pioneer of today’s Times Square” with a “flare for the fabulous,” Douglas Leigh was just a banker’s son growing up in Anniston, Alabama.
On May 24, 1907 a natural salesman was born. But before he became the rock star of the advertising world, Leigh was a small town boy who’s “always been fascinated by bright lights,” as he reflected in a New York Times profile less than a year before his death in 1999 at the age of 92.
In various newspaper and radio interviews, Leigh told of taking a family trip to New York City during World War I, where he encountered the work of designer Oscar Gude, whose signs were at the height of their fame. But there are also reports Leigh was first attracted to the glowing nighttime lights of the foundry in his hometown back when Anniston was a valuable manufacturing center for the cast-iron lampposts General Electric sold until 1930.
In a 1959 letter Tell references, Leigh wrote of a vivid, recurring memory he had of a of a red, white and blue electric sign that appeared to wave in the breeze over the Anniston town square – a popular image of patriotism for many towns both before and after World War I.
“I’m pretty sure he got his earliest inspirations from Anniston,” Tell says. “All small towns used lights in storefront windows, marquees and along the streets. They would’ve been everywhere.”
But Anniston had never seen anything like what Douglas Leigh would soon create … nowhere in the world had.
Today, the legacy Leigh forged survives not only in the flash of neon and flicker of light bulbs along a rejuvenated Times Square, but also in the somber shafts of light that pierce the night sky from the dark canyons of Lower Manhattan where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
In 1933 a cup of coffee turned 26-year-old Douglas Leigh into a New York City legend.
Leigh arrived in New York in 1930 with, according to legend, only $9 to his name and no chance of finding a job. But Leigh was as relentless as he was bright and imaginative - and he could sell anything.
As a freshman at the University of Florida, Leigh earned more than most of his professors by purchasing sole rights to ads for the college yearbook, earning more than $5,000 in sales. He dropped out in 1927, worked briefly for a sign company in Atlanta but was annoyed over their narrow vision of the possibilities of outdoor advertising.
“They are poster and paint men,” he vented to friends.
In New York City, he worked with the Brooklyn Branch of the General Outdoor Advertising Company. He didn’t last long, resigning less than a year later after refusing to take a 50 cent pay cut. Frustrated, Leigh decided to go into business for himself.
Leigh sold his car and bought a vacant sign board in the Bronx that he suggested the Hotel St. Moritz use for advertising space. In turn, he was paid $50 a month and was given a free room in the hotel for a year. On March 4, 1933 – the day of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential inauguration – Douglas Leigh, Inc. was officially launched. Business in the beginning was slow and money was tight. To brighten his spirits during the lean times, Leigh bought two cent carnations every day at Bloomingdales, wearing them as boutonnieres, which, along with a penchant for tweed and bowties, he wore for the rest of his life.
Courteous, dapper and friendly, Leigh cultivated the image of a true Southern gentleman, someone known for saying “yes, sir” even to his peers – a persona that helped him to become a millionaire businessman in the midst of the Great Depression.
“He’s his own salesman who looks incapable of making a sale,” E.J. Kahn, Jr. wrote of Leigh in a profile for New Yorker magazine. “Compared to the hard-hitting cyclonic type of salesman, he’s a gentle zephyr, and his meekness has a soothing effect on men that throws them off guard.”
In late 1933 while seeking inspiration, Leigh counted all the bulbs on Times Square - more than 90,500 - and decided there weren’t enough. He wanted to design something different. He wanted to design what people in the outdoor sign trade called “spectaculars,” which Leigh himself defined as a “larger than average sign that has unusual neon or bulb animated affects.”
Leigh’s spectacular came in the form of a coffee cup … a 25-foot-tall cup of A&P Coffee – complete with steam. New York City was put on notice - there was a new electric wizard in town.
During the next seven years, Douglas Leigh, Inc. earned more than $1.5 million in contracts and Leigh designed upwards of 32 spectaculars using more than 75,000 bulbs – all before he was 30 years old. Leigh was throwing switches on such iconic creations as the 120-foot-tall Pepsi waterfall; the Super Suds detergent sign with 3,000 floating bubbles per minute; animated cartoons for Old Gold cigarettes; blinking penguins for Kool cigarettes, an illuminated Coke sign that forecast the next day’s weather with a 30-foot-wide dial framing a rural house over which rain, snow, clouds and other weather effects appeared; and the Ballantine Beer spectacular that ran from sunset to 1 a.m. every night, using 1,600 red-and-gold incandescent lights plus 2,200 feet of neon tubes.
“By the late 1930s, Leigh had developed an antic, innovative style that summed up all the excitement of the Times Square spectacular tradition,” Tell writes. “Reaching beyond the sign tradition for inspiration, he embraced the spirit and scale of the electrical fairs, the hokum and theatricality of Broadway and movie stagecraft, and popular influences from cartoons to party games to toys to movies.”
Such signs had what, Leigh called, “memory value.” But his greatest spectacular was yet to come.
Five days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Leigh unveiled his Camel cigarette sign – considered “the most famous advertisement of all time” that was “quintessential Leigh,” Tell writes. Hung low on the façade of the Claridge Hotel at the southeast corner of Broadway and 44th Street, it depicted a soldier blowing real, 5-foot-wide smoke rings that wafted across Times Square, where the sign remained for 26 years. Leigh’s Camel sign was duplicated in 22 other cities.
“He has helped substantially make the Great White Way greater,” Kahn wrote in the 1941 New Yorker profile. “The sight of even a single, burnt-out bulb fills him with distress, and if New York is ever thoroughly blacked out, no man would take it harder.”
Leigh was known for constantly cruising around Times Square, inspecting his signs for imperfections and eavesdropping on the reactions of the crowds who gathered to gaze up at his latest spectacular. His desk was cluttered with notepads and light bulbs, which he liked to stare into mesmerized. Leigh was always jotting down concepts on used envelops or scraps of paper, which his secretary dutifully filed away. He envisioned the Empire State Building – the most famous skyscraper in the world – lit up like a glowing Lucky Strike cigarette or using the Rock of Gibraltar to advertise Prudential Insurance.
“I’m not an engineer. I’m not an artist. I’m not a technician,” Leigh told the New York Times in 1998. “I’m an idea man, a concept guy.”
During World War II Leigh’s signs went dim then dark because of governmental mandate on saving electricity. Leigh began promoting war bonds and lending his knowledge of lighting and projection to the Navy for gunnery training. When the war ended, he bought surplus blimps and sent them aloft with ad slogans for WonderBread and Mobile gasoline.
Without Leigh, even after the war ended, Times Square just wasn’t the same.
“Fashions in Times Square advertising started to become less imaginative in the late 1950s, creating signscapes that were less creatively dynamic than ever before,” Tell writes. “By the mid 1960s, not only was the era of the greatest Times Square signs over, but so was the tradition of spectaculars and electrical decoration throughout America. Downtowns all across the nation were becoming unfashionable and derelict.
“Times Square had hit its last, painful slide.”
But with his signs no longer attracting the masses, Leigh aimed for greater heights – skyscrapers.
Tribute in Lights
Leigh’s second career began in 1976 when he was offered the chance to fulfill a dream he’d had for more than 30 years – lighting the Empire State Building – when he created a patriotic red-white-and-blue design for the building’s crown in honor of America’s bicentennial.
The result was incredibly popular and led to lighting designs of other famous New York City landmarks, including floodlights for the Waldorf-Astoria, the Con Edison tower, the New York Life building and the Citicorp Building to name a few.
“In one important design, Leigh did a great deal to help restore the city’s damaged image and wounded ego,” Tell writes. “The sign maker’s lighting of the Empire State Building, which the owners allowed him to expand into a permanent program, is still used today.”
One idea Leigh envisioned was not fully realized – at least not by him. And not until something hauntingly similar was used to memorialize the dead following a national tragedy.
Douglas Leigh, whose “life was an exuberant exercise in creative attention-getting,” according to the New York Times, died in a Manhattan hospital on Dec. 14, 1999 at the age of 92, less than a year after the unveiling of his last work –floodlighting Donald Trump’s office building at 40 Wall Street.
“Leigh was one of the most inventive designers of the electrical era,” Tell writes. “Finishing his career as he began it, Leigh’s lighting designs helped revive the sublime skyline as a thrilling symbol of New York and as an object of fascination and admiration all over the world.”
One weekend in 2005 while researching the final years of Leigh’s career for her book, Tell, who is a senior staff member and editor at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, came across a folder among Leigh’s personal papers labeled “World Trade Center.” What she discovered was a “very elaborate” contract in which Leigh would design a lighting scheme for the dueling skyscrapers. Though negotiations went on for a couple a years, the plan never materialized and the idea, like thousands of others, was filed away.
But the photo composites of Leigh’s unrealized plan for illuminating the World Trade Center were “hauntingly” similar to the Tribute in Light – the 9/11 memorial where 88 spotlights shine toward the heavens from where the World Trade Center once stood.
“I think it speaks to his vision and imagination,” Tell says. “He was really ahead of his time in the way he used New York as a staging ground. And now part of that vision is sadly permanent.”