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The Glass Menagerie : Melrose Avenue Leads the Way in the Neon Renaissance

February 24, 1985|ELAINE WOO | Times Staff Writer

A tourist from Pennsylvania gazed at the neon sign above one of Melrose Avenue's offbeat stores. The eye-popping lights glowing red and blue spelled out the name "WACKO"in capital letters two feet high. Around the border were yellow, orange and green zigzags and dots, an inspired combination that added to the overall crazed effect.

"It has a charm," the tourist said, smiling. "I personally like these kinds of things."

The aesthetic appeal of the sign was lost on some of the store's trendy neighbors, who told Wacko's owner that the Dayglo colors lacked refinement. But the wacky electric logo erected two years ago is not out of place along this renovated stretch of Melrose from Fairfax Avenue east to La Brea Avenue, where the new-wave boutiques, restaurants and specialty stores have gone neon.

Once relegated to the kingdom of bad taste, neon signs are making a comeback in major cities across the country. Tod Swormstedt, editor of Signs of the Times, a Cincinnati-based trade magazine for the sign industry, said as many as 15 schools teaching neon glass blowing have opened in the last three years to fill the demand for craftsmen. Although he noticed the first signs of a neon revival eight years ago, he said the trend "hasn't reached it's peak at all."

One place aglow with the renaissance is Melrose, where the concentration of dazzling lights regularly attracts carloads of camera-toting tourists. Nearly every business on the avenue has neon, some using it as decoration inside as well as out. Even the tiniest boutiques have neon in their windows, displaying a sizzling line of pink, red or blue light like a badge of membership in an exclusive club. The signs appear in a wild variety of shapes and colors, illuminating what had been a dark and uninviting street.

"It's like grafitti, neon grafitti," said Alice Wolf, founder of Flip clothing store. "It lights up the darkness. It's magical."

Styles range from vintage and cute to far-out.

Flip brings back animated neon signage, showing a rock 'n' roll couple rocking out on top of a record disc. On the other extreme is Drake's erotica store, the front of which is dominated by a dramatic construction of plexiglass and vivid green neon tubing that looks like a lightning bolt. According to co-owner Ernie Garret, it is supposed to be a volcano erupting, a metaphor for sexual climax.

Down the street, the name of a funky used-clothing shop, Aaardvark's, is spelled out over and over again in simple block letters across the windows of an Art Deco storefront. It is bright, cheery and, the store's owner said, good public relations.

"Neon is a very unusual medium," said Joe Stromei. "It's very 'up.' It makes people happy. When I've deliberately left the signs off, people say, 'What happened?' like there was a death in the family. Neon makes people happy on a subliminal level."

The return of neon has caused some connoisseurs to wax philosophical about its meaning. Hollywood Neon's Larry Burns, who sells custom-made art work for $175 and up, said neon is "the incarnation of a new mood." Sometime between the 1960s and the late 1970s, public taste in art and home furnishings switched from soft and natural to hard, slick and glossy. "It corresponds to a need," he said. "Why did stained glass come back? Neon just fits in in a lot of ways now."

Most observers say the rage for neon on Melrose began with Flip, a 3-year-old clothing store that caters to New Wavers. But Alice Wolf, who also operates a boutique in downtown Los Angeles, said she and her partner-husband Paul didn't choose their sign to be trendy. Aside from a love of neon as an art form, Wolf said, the reason she was drawn to the flashy medium was firmly rooted in economics.

"Have you ever been to Las Vegas?" she asked. "The people who put neon in Vegas wanted to make bucks. Neon is 24-hour advertising."

According to Michael Webb, author of "The Magic of Neon," the technology was perfected in 1910 by Frenchman Georges Claude. It was introduced in the United States by Earl C. Anthony, who bought two signs in Paris in 1923 and installed them on top of his Packard showroom in Los Angeles.

From the 1920s through 1940s, neon was the preferred medium of sign makers. Classic examples from these eras ranged from the flashy extravagance of Vegas casinos to the whimsical designs adorning small businesses. The sign above John's Pipe Shop in Hollywood is a good example of the latter. Built in the '40s, the neon was shaped to form puffs of smoke rising from a pipe.

"A neon sign was an event whenever it was put up. People went out to see it, like a movie premiere," said neon artist Lili Lakich, who co-founded the Museum of Neon Art in downtown Los Angeles in 1981.

In the 1950s, however, neon began to fall into disrepute, no longer associated with glamour and progress but with blight and decay. New lighting techniques and the rise of plastic signs contributed to its decline.

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