Bright Lights, Big Neon in L.A.

By Allison Engel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Basking in glow business, not show business, may be the coolest way to experience Los Angeles on a Saturday night.

We're talking neon here. Miles of it.

Saturday evenings through Oct. 21, bus "cruises" organized by the downtown Museum of Neon Art wing through the city in search of the stuff, offering a quirky (and, yes, illuminating) look at L.A.'s neighborhoods and history. All the while, cruisers get to see fabulous examples of the city's blazing commercial past and present.

Remarkably, the cruises ferry visitors around L.A. for nearly three hours without once venturing onto one of city's freeways. To pull off this astonishing feat, the museum's double-decker bus motors from downtown and sticks to such neon-rich thoroughfares as Sunset, Wilshire and Hollywood boulevards and Melrose Avenue.

It's an elevating experience. Seated high on the bus's top tier, you can see the signs up close -- and anything else on a building's second floor. "Feel free to look in anybody's window," guide Max Pierce tells our sold-out group of 45 neon enthusiasts. Pierce points out that we are duplicating the experience of sitting in the double-decker streetcars that once crisscrossed downtown. Department stores designed special window displays for their second stories, sometimes using live models, to capture the attention of riders.

The tour makes two stops -- in Chinatown, where the bus let us off to walk down a neon-filled plaza that ends at a spectacular green-and-white-lit pagoda, and at the venerable Canter's Deli, a Fairfax District 24-hour pastrami, pastry and egg cream outpost. At the deli, we sample the wares and take a bathroom break.

In between, the signs float by. Grand Star Jazz Club. Inglesia Universal. Hotel Ward SRO. Brite Spot. Harvard House Motel. Church of Scientology. Formosa Cafe. Tiki-Ti. Vista Theatre, Cuchi-Cuchi Restaurant. Amoeba Music. Soul Kitchen. Cocktail glasses! Bowling pins! Palm trees! Musical notes! Religious crosses!

The old signs are the most evocative, but it's heartening to see born-yesterday neon on funky storefronts on Melrose Avenue and on new buildings, including the Caltrans headquarters downtown, which uses neon to gild its architectural lines.

L.A., it turns out, is home to the world's greatest concentration of original neon signs, says Pierce. Las Vegas and Toyko may have more neon, but it's new, not vintage. Restoration of old signs and appreciation for new neon artists is helping the city stay at the forefront.

Thanks to the ongoing LUMENS project (Living Urban Museum of Electric and Neon Signs), more than 130 historic signs from the city's neon heyday of the 1920s, '30s and '40s have been relit over the past 16 years. The project was the bright idea of Al Nodal, who relocated from Washington, D.C., in the 1980s and became general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department. The project's latest success story is the graceful blue-and-white "Broadway Hollywood" rooftop sign that advertised the now-closed Broadway department store at Hollywood and Vine (soon to become luxury condominiums). It flashed to life in October after being dark for a quarter-century.

Seventy years ago, hotels and apartment buildings all across the city were topped with such neon "crowns." They spelled out the names and attributes of the buildings, often in stylized block fonts or script letters. But in February 1942, then-Mayor Fletcher Bowron ordered the signs turned off, lest they light the way for Japanese bombing runs.

Unfortunately, many of the signs remained dark after the war. To this day, Los Angeles has dozens more rooftop signs waiting patiently to be relit. They were built so well, says Nodal, that none of the signs' scaffolding has required any major repair.

"This historic neon was very significant to the city," he observes. "It was an early public expression of modernism and one of the first major urban improvements to L.A."

Rooftop signs can cost $25,000 and up to restore, says Kim Koga, director of the Museum of Neon Art. The three-sided Bendix sign at 12th and Maple streets, with its 25-foot-tall letter "B," cost $50,000 to resurrect. But if the glass tubes and wiring are intact, even an elaborate sign -- such as one of a mason laying bricks that's on display in the museum -- can cost as little as $300 to renovate.

This year, aiming for those who want more of a hipster cultural experience, the museum began a second tour. The Poet's Beat Neon Cruise includes hip-hop poet Mike Sonksen (who goes by the name Mike the Poet) and percussionist Matt Reid Cohn, who's also a photographer and goes by the name Neon Hunter. As Mike the Poet, a third-generation Angeleno, calls out his energetic, evocative wordscapes about the city, Cohn accompanies him on a West African djembe drum, occasionally blowing on a kazoo or rattling shakers.

These musical efforts alternate with taped songs chosen for the word "neon" in their lyrics, sung by L.A.-based artists such as the late Elliott Smith, Ry Cooder and the Doors, as well as Bjork ("All Neon Like") and the Kinks ("Underneath the Neon Sign").

You must be 21 or older to partake in the beat cruise, since it stops at three noteworthy watering holes: the looks-old-but-is-new Broadway Bar, next to the restored downtown Orpheum Theatre with its eye-popping marquee; the Frolic Room, adjacent to the art deco Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard; and Frank N Hanks, an unassuming dive bar down the street from the saved-from-the-wrecking ball Wiltern Theatre in Koreatown. Only three dates for the fledgling Beat tour have been scheduled, with the next one on Aug. 19, but more may be added if the idea takes off.

If Beat isn't your bag, there's always the original cruise. And those miles of neon.

"Looking at neon is a way to celebrate the city in so many ways," Eric Lynxwiler, another cruise guide, tells me later. "Its culture, its architecture, its history, even its dirt -- what neighborhood was there before it became something else -- can be described when you are looking at neon."

Allison Engel is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Both neon tours start at the Museum of Neon Art (501 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 101, 213-489-9918, The original Neon Cruises, which run through Oct. 21, start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 for museum members, $45 for nonmembers. Tours usually sell out, so reservations are required. The next Poet's Beat Neon Cruise is 8 p.m. on Aug. 19. Prices are $20 for museum members , $25 for nonmembers. The museum's current exhibit is "Fire in the Night: The Neon Photographs of J. Howard Mott." Museum admission is $5; tour fees include museum entry. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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