In the beginning…
Before Valley freeways paved the way to a sprawling suburbia, narrow ribbons of asphalt connected communities through an expansive national highway network.
Travelers entered and exited the East Valley via these thoroughfares, which were crossroads to destinations within the state and across the nation.
Four major Federal Highways – U.S. 60, 70, 80 and 89 all came together to become Main Street in Mesa, which was the same road as Van Buren Street….in Phoenix.
After long stretches of open desert, travelers finally were on Main/VanBuren Streets which were lined with dazzling neon signs beckoning road-weary travelers to the home-comfort of a motel. During the heyday of roadside lodging, more than 150 Hotels Motels Lodges and Inns, Campgrounds and Rest Stations lined the highways that ran through the Valley….enticing tourists to stop and stay the night.
The Starlite Motel was unique because it had a pool.
It was built just west of Lindsay Road and Main Street in 1958 by Syracuse, Kansas transplants Elmo and Richard Kaesler.
Marta Kaesler-Maroon, who was four when her family moved to Mesa, recalls the early years of the Starlight –
“The owners, Elmo (Bud) Kaesler and Richard (Dick) Kaesler, with a little financial backing from their father Ed, constructed the Starlite and later the Stageland a block away. Customers called them the Kaesler brothers. They took turns sleeping at the motel every other week. The customers came from the East and stayed for months at a time, the same ones year after year. Our customers were very social and became good friends to our family and one another.”
In it’s earliest days The Starlite welcomed visitors with a traditional neon sign (seen in the image below, directly behind the young lady). That sign, at night, could be seen for a fair distance. It was created by master neon artist Paul Millett who started his sign company in Mesa in 1946.
In the late-50’s a pool was an expensive attraction for a motel to have. In a desert climate, a pool was a great “selling point”. An excellent investment really in convincing people to stop at your Motel. As opposed to the pool-less others.
The Kaesler Brothers decided to “draw people’s attention to this”, the fact that they had a pool at their Motel. They were really unique and brave people, in hindsight, because they could have just put any old sign up saying that they had a POOL because they did….they had a pool already so….that gave them a distinct advantage over their competition, you know, other Motels. But the Kaesler Brothers were brave enough to take a chance, to invest in a sign that forever after would see a legendary piece of Neon Architecture and Artistry find her home on East Main Street……in Mesa Arizona.
Once again they called on the artistic flair of Paul Millet. Working from a design created by artist Stanley Russon,Every night, since its installation in 1960, when the sun went down the neon pin-up beauty (some suggest Marilyn Monroe was the inspiration) leaped from the pinnacle of the sign in a three-panel animated sequence into a splash of neon water below.
The sign was so unique that it became known nationally and even worldwide as one of the best examples of historic roadside lodging signage. The Diving Lady’s first day on the job was in 1960. For 50 years she served as a familiar beacon, a comforting sight for weary Dads and Moms, tired from driving and a stunning vision for kids that made them so amazed….
Faithfully leaping 6 times a minute, 360 jumps an hour – The Diving Lady made more than six million dives over half a century!!!
On October 5, 2010, one of the most powerful storms on record wreaked havoc on the Valley.
The Diving Lady had survived hundreds of storms in her long life but this storm was unlike others, with hailstones the size of pinballs, roraring winds and rain, an intense micro-burst lashed down upon her. It was was just too much for her. In an instant, the gale-force wind caused a faulty joint from a late 1990s repair to fail
At her very BASE. There could have been no worse scenario…..no more “perfect” a storm….to send the Diving Lady crashing on a fatal plunge to the pavement below.
The noise was terrible and the damage was devastating – the Diving Lady was finished.
Vanquished. Fifty years Grand, she now was broken into pieces on the ground. A full 69 feet of her 78 foot total heigth crashed, thundering to the Earth.BOOM!!!
Not only was all her neon tubing destroyed, but she also lay mangled and crumpled. Twisted Metal and Broken Glass strewn all over the Starlite parking lot, it was amazing how far some of her pieces went, its as though…in her final moment she was trying to disperse herself to every part of the Earth just….”Kaboom” then then finally Silence. Except for the sound of the Hail that continued to plummet down upon her. The Diving Lady was done.
A half-century in the elements had caused considerable erosion. This on top of the devestation that the impact caused. It would take an expert to put all the pieces back together…”Humpty Dumpty”, reassembling HIM would be a Day in The Park….compared to this. Looking down upon the devestated Diving Lady…..everyone to a (Wo)Man who stopped to witness her tragic devestation that day and in the days following the storm thought to themselves, some even saying out loud:
And so it was….
More than just a sign getting broken, this was the loss of a piece of our history. To accept that she was finished, gone forever….was hard.
Word about the terrible accident spread quickly throughout Mesa, Phoenix, Arizona and even worldwide among those who are admirers of Neon Art….travelers who had seen her and Architects and Artsists who….would just generally appreciate such a unique and vintage work of Commercial Architecture.
People found it dificult to accept that she would never grace the high board again, leaving behind a void on Main Street where she had become such a familiar and accustomed sight to so many. The loss was especially profound for Kaesler-Maroon – “I, too, would love to see the sign of the neon diving ladies restored,” she says. “It may be just a sign, but it signifies an era in Mesa when it was a small town that welcomed people of the North with a little relief from a cold, harsh winter.”
Soon “Save the Diving Lady” became a rallying cry. Mesa Preservation Foundation – a non-profit formed by longtime devotees to the preservation of historic structures, objects and neighborhoods in Mesa and beyond – agreed.
Working with the owners of Starlite Motel, the Foundation began a campaign to raise the $65,000 that would be necessary for her restoration.
WHAT’S AHEAD –
As mentioned above: All who came to her, as she lay crumpled on the ground, knew that she was done and that there was no hope. You could see the massive erosion, metal eaten away by one half of 100 years worth of diving beneath the blazing Arizona Sun.
One man though, he did not so much feel that The Diving Lady was necessarily finished. He was a pupil of Paul Millet, the Neon Artist who originally built the sign back in 1959…..Millet had taught him the art of Neon Fabrication.
….And he still maintained a Neon Shop in Mesa. Graham’s Neon, on Country Club Road.
The Foundation and local neon artist Larry Graham decided to unite to save the Diving Lady. Graham was mentored by the late Paul Millet and is still using some of the equipment that Millet might have used when he fabricated the Diving Lady over 50 years earlier.
With Graham’s connection to Millet, he was a great fit to restore this irreplaceable treasure. And one of just a handful of people on the Earth who could even do it….with Custom Handmade Neon becoming somewhat a dying artform….replaced now with Mass Produced each one like the next LED signs.
After five weeks of careful restoration, Diving Lady #2 (she is the middle of the 3 Diving Ladies on the sign) was restored, remaining about 90% original materials that she was made of initially, which is amazing considering the erosion that existed and thus the need to cut, meld, mold and fashion small specifically shaped and curved pieces of metal then weld those onto her. Graham expects all the repairs to be made by October 5, 2011 – a year to the day from when the Diving Lady took her fatal plunge. Plans are being laid for a big reinstallation and relighting ceremony.
In the meantime, as each piece is restored, the Foundation hopes to put it on display so all the Diving Lady’s fans can follow the progress of her road to recovery. This has thus far been accomplished with the very generous contribution of Westcor Corporation who have provided large spaces within both their Fiesta Mall and Superstition Springs Mall, for the display of Diving Ladies #2 and #1….which have both been fully restored. Diving Lady #1 (she is the one at the very top of the sign) just going on display in earrly June, 2011. So this is definitely an exciting and ever unfolding process.
The restoration of the Diving Lady can only be accomplished through the support of the many people who have enjoyed her nightly aquatics. As of mid-June over 1/2 of the $65,000 total to needed to fully restore the sign has been raised. No public money is being used on this project. The funds necessary to return this unique part of Mesa’s History to our community will come from all who love her or have a passion for preserving our community’s History.