“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
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
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:
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.
Liquor, North Hollywood
Remember the abandoned parking lot where Alicia Silverstone’s
character, Cher, was robbed and forced to lay down on the pavement in the movie
Clueless? It was filmed outside Circus
Liquor, an infamous wine and spirits superstore located on the corner of
Burbank Boulevard and Vineland Avenue, and advertised by a giant vintage-style
neon clown. "The massive Circus Liquor store can seem like a nightmare," Lynxwiler said. "But I adore the sign for its scale and its combo of plastic and neon
Helms Bakery Complex, Culver City
The onetime home of Helms
Bakery, an industrial bakery established in 1931 and located on the corner
of Helms Avenue and Washington Boulevard, is now a fashionable furniture and
home design shopping complex. Though the bakery closed in 1969, the landmark
building and its animated neon sign remain. The red, white and blue sign reads “Helms
Olympic Bread, Choice of Olympic Champions”, a nod to the bakery’s designation
as the Official Bread of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. "It's not just
a sign, it's a spectacular," said Lynxwiler. (Notably, Helms also claimed to
have the first bread on the moon -- the bakery supplied bread to the astronauts
of Apollo 11 shortly before its closing.
Serving pastrami sandwiches around the clock, the Jewish-style Canter’s
Deli is a Los Angeles institution. The Art Deco neon sign above the
entrance spells out “Open All Night, Canter’s Restaurant Bakery Delicatessen” in
glowing green and yellow letters. "The
signage on that building represents its eras," Lynxwiler said. "And it's got a
long tale to tell." The story starts with three Canter brothers -- poor New
Jersey boys -- moving to California and starting a modest delicatessen in 1931.
By the 1950s, Canter’s was serving late-night sandwiches to the likes of
Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.
The Neon Cruise runs on Saturday evenings from June
through September. The tour continues even as the Museum of Neon Art itself -- the only
museum in the world dedicated to both historic neon signs and modern neon art --
is closed while moving to a much larger (and permanent) space in the Los
Angeles suburb of Glendale. The museum’s executive director, Kim Koga, said that
future visitors to the museum can expect to see a neon fabricating facility, a
glass furnace that shows how neon tubes were originally made by hand, exhibits
of vintage neon signs, themed light art exhibits and interactive displays
covering the early era of electricity. The Neon Cruise will continue to operate
from downtown Los Angeles even after the new museum opens.