One of the country’s oldest purveyors of electronic billboards, Artkraft Strauss has been making signs since 1897. Among the company’s most famous Times Square creations was a 1941 Camel advertisement that had rings coming out of a smoker’s mouth every four seconds. In The Devil’s Playground, his history of Times Square, James Traub calls the company the “last survivor” of this brand of handicraft—but also notes that Strauss scion Tama Starr “is afflicted with a rather extreme, if understandable, sense of declinism.” On the 100th anniversary of the square, Starr talks about her changing trade.
THE PERFECT LOCATION: “In 1929, when the stock market crashed, many of the buildings in Times Square were under construction. That stopped, leaving the buildings at two or three stories, with a lot of exposed rooftop, just right for advertisers with big lights.”
THE NECESSARY LOOK: “Signs have to be more like a kinetic light sculpture than a magazine page.”
HER FAVORITE SIGN: “The Concorde. It was a half-size scale model, 104 feet long, and took two dozen people to get it up. People thought it was real.”
CHANGING COSTS: “In 1991, the Coca-Cola sign cost $3.5 million. Now the displays on the Morgan Stanley building can run upwards of $10 million!”
CHANGING TECHNOLOGY: “The billboards are the same as you’d see on highways in Illinois. They’re printed on vinyl by computers, not hand-painted.”
DECLINING TASTES: “The Damon Runyonesque, seedy but engaging character has given way to a homogenized corporate culture. You see the same stores that you see in Dubuque. Visitors feel more at home because they recognize signs for the Gap.”