Getting Turned On

The warmth of neon

For those that don’t know me, I love a double entendre. Hence the title of this piece. But the real story here is one of Route 66’s most photographed landmarks, the Roy’s Motel and Cafe sign in Amboy California, is getting turned on today after being dark since the 80s.

Earlier this week, The Desert Sun reported that the owners of Roy’s Motel and Cafe had successfully raised $17,500 in a Kickstarter campaign to get the famous sign to light up.  And today is the day it will shine again.  

Amboy, CA is 60 miles northeast of Twentynine Palms, home to one of my favourite stops The Harmony Motel.  Roy’s Motel and Cafe opened its doors in 1938 and anchored one end of the small town.  Amboy grew to a population of 700 people but like so many other small town motels, when the interstate opened in 1973 business dried up. Today it is more like a ghost town that plays host to bus tours and Route 66 enthusiasts.  

“People want to stay there. They always ask if it’s open”

Kyle Okura, on reopening the motel at Roy’s Motel Cafe in Amboy CA

In 2005 Albert Okura bought the town of Amboy for $425,000 and immediately spent another $100,000 restoring Roy’s Motel and Cafe.  In 2008 he successfully reopened the gas station. After today’s lighting of the sign, the goal now is to open the cafe in a 50s diner theme. However, the challenge he must overcome is water.  According to his son Kyle Okura, there is no access to fresh water, and he has to transport it in.  But perhaps even before that, Okura will reopen the six cottages of the motel. 

“That’s the strongest interest more than the café” said Kyle Okura, Albert Okura’s 26 year old son in his interview with the Desert Sun “people want to stay there. They always ask if it’s open”

And this should give hope for another iconic sign that has been dark for too long-the camel atop The Motel Safari in Tucumcari, New Mexico.

The Motel Safari was one of my stops along my Sleeping Around in America tour last summer.  Owner Larry Smith has been busy running and restoring the famous Route 66 motel for sometime now.  And it is incredible. But his dream is to see the camel on his sign light up again.  And while he has thought about launching his own fundraising campaign to help him raise the capital, he hasn’t done so yet.  Perhaps the Roy’s Motel and Cafe story will inspire him.  Because there really is something in those neon signs that strikes a chord.

Speaking of chords, one of my favourite songs is Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms and Neon Signs.  As the cold weather is coming upon us, there is one line in the song that really stands out. It goes ‘The warmth of neon when a cold storm is moving in’.   I love the song Thunderstorms and Neon Signs because it’s all about the comfort motels provide for travellers on the road. Wayne originally recorded the song in 1995, but he released it again on his album Swing Time in 2003 recorded live at the Continental Club in Austin Texas.  Now I don’t know if Liz Lambert was there for that recording or even heard him perform that song.  But it’s quite possible she was. Because something inspired her one night at the Continental Club.

Liz Lambert is the president and CEO of Bunkhouse Group.  While sitting in The Continental Club on S.Congress Avenue Liz had an epiphany. Perhaps inspired by the song, or perhaps inspired by the neon sign of the Club, I really don’t know, but it was there where Liz decided to buy her first motel that was located across the street from the Club-known today as Hotel San Jose.  And from that first motel her empire grew.  Today she operates some of America’s most iconic motels including the Austin Motel and Phoenix Hotel to name a couple. All incredible properties and all filled with the warmth of neon. And in today’s social sharing society on Instagram and Facebook, a cool photo opportunity is key to attracting a broad range of patrons.

Meanwhile, Kyle Okura gets it.  He knows that lighting the Roy’s Motel and Cafe sign is a first step to something bigger. “I want it to be a haven for the young and old alike to not just have a place to take nice pictures but experience the openness that you can’t get in the city.” 

So perhaps with today’s lighting of the Roy’s Motel and Cafe sign, this really will be the first next step in adding more cool retro motel rooms along Route 66.  And that turns me on!

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