Exploring LA's neon past
A neon glow still illuminates countless vintage landmarks in Los Angeles’ urban landscape. (Bridget Gleeson)
“If Paris is the City of Lights, LA is the City of Neon,” wrote American historian Kevin Starr in the Los Angeles Times in 1999.
Indeed, while neon enthusiasts might expect to get their fluorescent fix in New York or Las Vegas, neither city rivals Los Angeles with respect to historic signage -- most neon signs in the Big Apple, only meant to be temporary advertisements, were gone by the 1970s, while in Sin City most of the surviving historic neon signs have been transplanted to the Neon Museum’s downtown galleries and are no longer on display in their original locations on the Strip. But thanks to a forward-thinking community of neon artists and a museum dedicated to the preservation of historic neon signs, an electric glow still illuminates countless vintage landmarks in Los Angeles’ urban landscape, from decorative antique theatres and old-fashioned apartment buildings to traditional mom-and-pop delicatessens and gloriously seedy cocktail bars.
However, many neon monuments are tucked out of the way while others have a fascinating back story you would be sorry to miss. So the best way to bask in the technicolour blaze is aboard an open-air, double-decker bus on the Museum of Neon Art’s Neon Cruise. The exuberant tour features an expert guide, free-flowing drinks, a driver who knows his way around the city’s notorious traffic jams -- and best of all, you are sitting high above street level with nothing but the night sky between you and the neon signs.
Taking in dozens of neon sights in three hours, the tour kicks off in Chinatown at dusk, just as the neon lights outlining the historic Chinese gate flicker on. The bus then barrels on past the elegant architecture of downtown and into the bright lights lining the jam-packed arteries of Hollywood.
Narrating the journey with a megaphone is the museum’s longtime guide, the witty and deeply knowledgeable Eric Lynxwiler, an urban anthropologist and author of Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles. According to Lynxwiler, Los Angeles became the birthplace of American neon in 1923 when car dealer Earl C Anthony imported a pair of neon signs from Paris, France to his downtown Packard dealership. “As the saying goes”, Lynxwiler explained, “their crisp bright light literally stopped traffic. In jazz-age America, the neon sign took off, and every business that wanted to prove itself modern had to invest in a neon sign to keep up with the competition.” Blackouts and material shortages turned the lights off during World War II, but afterwards, neon was ablaze again in Los Angeles as contemporary companies employed eye-catching designs and illumination to sell their products. But then again, neon fell out of use by the 1970s, unable to compete with the bargain prices of backlit plastic signs.
Thankfully, by the early 1980s, shop owners on Melrose Avenue, in an effort to stand out from retail competitors elsewhere in the city, were bringing neon back to Los Angeles by employing traditional neon signmakers to enliven their storefronts. Recognizing the importance of neon art in the city’s history, artists Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins founded the Museum of Neon Art in 1981 to promote the preservation of historic signage and to advance the art form.
So what are some of LA’s stand-out neon landmarks? Lynxwiler weighs in:
The laughing Buddha, Chinatown
Topping the list is the animated Buddha atop Chinatown's KG Louie Co, a traditional shop on Central Plaza that has been selling jade, wood carvings and paintbrushes since 1938. "That little, blue, laughing deity slapping his thighs each night can always make me smile. He's among the oldest figural neon signs left in place in the city," Lynxwiler said.
The Frolic Room cocktail bar, Hollywood
Featured in the film LA Confidential, the Frolic Room (6245 Hollywood Boulevard) is a dive bar with an old-fashioned neon sign spelling out its name above the doorway. "It’s among the best examples to prove that text can be art. The combined F and R is a beautiful piece of typography," Lynxwiler said.
Los Angeles with Lonely Planet
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