When Los Angeles was the Neon City

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For about four decades, every business in Los Angeles had a neon sign. The authors of “Spectacular Illumination” say the art of neon is making a comeback.

Most cities in Los Angeles County today are pretty strict about signage. That was not always the case though; in fact at one time streets were “cacophonous” with vivid neon signs. That’s according to Tom Zimmerman and Eric Lynxwiler, co-authors of Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles 1925-1965. They gave DnA a tour of the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, which houses some classic neon signs, and talked about why neon is making a comeback.

“The neon in Los Angeles is a big deal,” Lynxwiler said. “Las Vegas or Times Square in New York may be more popular for neon. But Los Angeles was the city of the automobile, and every business in Los Angeles had to have a neon sign. If not one, they had to have five neon signs. And the photographs that we chose for the book tried to represent the fact that Los Angeles is a neon city. We look around and we think we have a lot of neon. We had a heck of a lot more in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. It’s a neon city.”

But neon suffered a backlash in the 1960’s and ’70s. Critics associated the signs with urban decay, and cities nationwide began tearing down neon signs, including Glendale and Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.

Among the signs in The Museum of Neon Art’s collection is the iconic hat-shaped Brown Derby neon sign, which sat atop the Hollywood restaurant from 1929 until it was destroyed by fire in 1987. The sign was rescued from a scrapyard and sold to Universal Studios, which had thought to re-open the Brown Derby at Universal CityWalk (until realizing the restaurant name was trademarked). The sign was then donated to the museum, and after a decade, it has been fully restored.

“It took a few thousand dollars, but it’s glowing beautifully and it’s preserved for decades to come,” Lynxwiler said.

Eric Lynxwiler, left, and Tom Zimmerman, co-authors of "Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles 1925-1965"
Eric Lynxwiler, left, and Tom Zimmerman, co-authors of “Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles 1925-1965.” Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“I think that the rise of the automobile, the jazz age in America and Art Deco architecture all crashed together at the exact same time,” Lynxwiler said. “We had a beautiful prosperity in America in the 1920s and we just blossomed… and that’s really well-represented in American cinema. We have so many movies that were filmed in Los Angeles in the 1920s and they capture a beautiful era of craziness when we were just going nuts for ZigZag Moderne architecture, neon and streamlined automobiles. I watch Turner Classic Movies all the time just because I want to see a little bit of that Los Angeles that we don’t have anymore”

Lynxwiler sees neon outliving the current lighting option of choice, LEDs, which he calls a “landfill filler.”

“Giant TV sets of LED light, that’s great, neon can’t do that. But when it comes to signage, it’s just a cold, dead light. Neon lasts longer, and the best example of that is Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. When the Clifford Clinton cafeteria was being remodeled, the owner wound up finding a 1930s neon tube still burning behind an enclosed wall,” Lynxwiler said. “It’s a highly functioning, long-functioning form of illumination which will last far, far longer than LED can today.”