YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Metropolis / Snapshots from the Center of the Universe

Neon Rhapsody

A '50s Classic Is Flashing L.A. Again

August 03, 2003|IRENE LACHER

Many an icon of Southern California architecture beckons to the empty stomach. This isn't the town for humongous clocks or sleek moderne skyscrapers like those in world capitals with actual history--give us a giant doughnut or a neon sign signaling a burger on the loose any day.

For one of SoCal's finest gastronomical landmarks, you can thank the late Norm Roybark. He was the Norm of Norm's coffee shops, and his name has been lighting up Southern California skies for more than 50 years--albeit, until recently, on a reluctantly muted scale.

Norm wasn't the kind of guy you'd see as a taste-maker, except when it came to eggs over easy. He started out as a used-car salesman, and he brought his marketing savvy to restaurateuring. Roybark wanted his restaurant to look like a brightly lit automobile showroom, with people instead of cars behind those huge glass windows.

He hired architect Eldon Davis, who was busy fathering the kooky California coffee shop for chains such as the Clock and Huddle restaurants. At a time when America was in love with aerodynamic design, Davis made Norm's resemble an airplane wing with a roof that tilted down toward the back.

But the piece de resistance was the sign, a spiky shout in "Norm's orange,'' as the company calls the shade. Norm wanted the sign to dance like the snazzy neons in Las Vegas, and he got his wish. Davis scrawled the design on a Norm's napkin in 1950: a veritable light show with the letters N-O-R-M-S stacked vertically from top to bottom, each letter blazing from its own pennant-shaped background with "washing" white neon (lighting lingo for a horizontal effect).

"If you were brain dead you'd still see it and go in there to eat," says Santa Monica architect Victor Newlove, current partner of Davis, who is semi-retired. Indeed, the Norm's sign became such an integral part of the landscape that in 1964, Ed Ruscha immortalized it in his painting "Norm's, La Cienega, on Fire," which is in the Broad Art Foundation and has been exhibited at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

By the '70s, the energy crisis was dimming Norm's enthusiasm for flashing lights. The neon tubes were vulnerable to moisture, and every time it rained, some lights would go out, requiring costly repairs. The flaming white pennants were turned off, leaving only the orange NORMS letters constantly lit. Noisy signs were going out of vogue, and in 1986, Santa Monica cited code violations in ordering its Norm's to remove the sign by 1999.

But over the next decade or so, Southern California got hip to its history. Santa Monica saw the light, and in early 2000, its City Council declared the Norm's sign, which had yet to be removed, of meritorious distinction. Focus groups assembled by Norm's last year suggested that restoring the flash would be good business to boot. The family-owned chain has 17 locations from Los Angeles County to Riverside, but metropolitan L.A. has lost several restaurants over the years.

New technology has made flashing neon more cost-effective. So amid much hoopla, Norm's recently restored and re-ignited the signs at its restaurants on La Cienega Boulevard north of the Beverly Center, on Pico Boulevard in Westwood and on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. The Norm's in Bellflower joined the pack in late July after that city exempted Norm's from its ban on moving and blinking lighted signs.

At $40,000 to restore each sign, good taste doesn't come cheap, even at Norm's, where every bite is a bargain. "There's very little . . . of this style of architecture and sign design left," Newlove says. "It's the ultimate 1950s homage to Jetsons architecture, and it survived. So flaunt it."

Los Angeles Times Articles