The familiar silhouette, sizzling with a movie-star glow, was unmistakable: A sculpted flip of sunshine yellow-blond hair; electric blue eyes; luminous, pouting red lips; soft, pink curving shoulders; gently sweeping lines of the famous white halter dress.
Yes, it was Marilyn--all dolled up in neon.
The piece, mounted dramatically on black Lucite, hangs on the wall of the Laguna Canyon office of Alex Evans, known to his clients and friends simply as "Dr. Neon." Evans' striking sculpture of the quintessential movie sex symbol serves notice to all who enter that there's a world of neon beyond those red NO VACANCY signs advising weary vacationers to keep driving or the green WALK street signals that let pedestrians, chickens and everyone else know it's safe to get to the other side.
Neon lighting has been in use since the principle behind it was discovered in the late 19th Century, but it has perhaps never been more popular than it is today.
Look around and you'll find it everywhere: Green neon palm trees decorate a Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa; an orange neon foot hangs in the office window of a Seal Beach podiatrist; blue neon letters spell out Video over the videotapes in an Anaheim record store; a red neon heart perches over a Garden Grove barbecued-rib joint.
"It's amazing--everybody working in neon is busy right now," said Wendell Adams, owner of Neon Systems Inc. in Garden Grove, which specializes in interior and exterior neon lighting, not signs.
"Watch TV today and you won't see a hip commercial without a piece of neon," said Mary Carter, curator of the nonprofit Museum of Neon Art, or MONA, in Los Angeles, which restores and preserves vintage neon signs as well as exhibiting contemporary artworks that incorporate neon. "Neon has a special kind of glow . . . an enveloping glow . . . that I think people forgot."
Orange County can't match the eye-popping quantity of neon that electrifies the Las Vegas Strip, a.k.a. Neon Heaven or Neon Hell, depending upon your point of view. But the neon renaissance is clearly visible in a wide range of creative neon locally, from upscale restaurants and trendy nightclubs to local artists who use it for its aesthetic qualities.
On the commercial side, you can find a plethora of red neon Open signs, but there are also more inventive samples around from the glory days of neon in the 1940s and '50s, at longstanding businesses such as the Balboa Cinema in Newport Beach and the Brookhurst Shopping Center in Anaheim.
As with other remnants of the past, much neon, despite the resurgence, is giving way to the wrecking ball. One of the oldest, most widely seen and most elaborate neon signs in Orange County--the windmill tower for Arnold's Farm House and the Buttery restaurants in Buena Park--is no longer functional. Both restaurants have been demolished for redevelopment, and the fate of the windmill, which still stands, unlit, is uncertain.
"Today, with the range of neon colors available for a designer to create lights and shadows, it is just amazing," said Dale TerBush, head of design for Restaurant Enterprises Group, which owns El Torito, Cocos, Reubens, Baxters and Charlie Brown restaurants, most of which are employing neon for signs and lighting. TerBush also operates his own independent lighting and design firm. "What's happening is that people now who have used it realize what an art form they have--if they know how to control it."
But neon has neither always been quite so revered nor as popular as it has become in the shiny, high-tech '80s. After a neon boom that lasted from the 1920s through most of the '50s, neon lost most of its sparkle in the '60s. Why?
In the single word of sage career advice offered to Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate": plastics.
"Plastic signs were easy to make, and when plastic came around, you could throw two fluorescent tubes behind a sheet of molded plastic and have a sign. All neon was (and remains virtually) handwork," said Mary Carter, curator of the 7-year-old MONA.
Another factor in the decline was, ironically, the sheer popularity of neon, which became so common it was often considered vulgar. The ubiquitous choice for signs over motels, trailer parks, liquor stores and bars, neon came to represent a strata of society that was less than fashionable.
"Twenty years ago on Harbor Boulevard it was just everywhere and overdone," TerBush said, "so everyone got burned out on it. But neon is really an art. Look back to the '40s and '50s--some of the signs that were done were incredible. But later the market became proliferated with low-budget neon. It became garish. People shut off to it; cities shut off to it."