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Its Future Once Dim, Neon Crackles Back to Life

Vibrant rooftop signs enjoy a comeback in the city that brought the phenomenon to the U.S. More than 100 have been restored so far.

March 04, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Those who love the old relics speak of them glowingly.

Rooftop neon signs, they say, highlight Los Angeles at its exuberant best, reflecting a time of optimism and inventiveness that turned the city into a glamorous global metropolis.

"Neon signs give the impression of youthful energy," Kim Koga said. "They can come in over 200 different colors. They are very efficient to run. And Los Angeles was a real showcase for neon in its heyday."

It's that kind of appreciation that for nearly 25 years has propelled a campaign to bring the city's array of rooftop neon back to life.

One by one, more than 100 of the signs have been restored with new glass tubing, electric wiring and a fresh coat of paint. And then they have been switched back on to brighten L.A.

Some advertise companies that no longer exist. But as they once again crackle and shine, each represents a defining period in the evolution of Los Angeles: the Roaring '20s and the frenetic '30s.

The three latest neon signs to be restored were re-illuminated Jan. 27 in the downtown area.

Movie marquees outside the Los Angeles and Palace theaters in the 600 block of South Broadway were plugged back in. At the same time, neon outlining one of the twin KRKD rooftop transmitter towers once used by radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson was turned on above the 500 block of Broadway.

"Along Broadway in the '50s every building on the street had a neon sign connected to it," said Koga, director of Los Angeles' 23-year-old Museum of Neon Art, the only one of its kind in the world.

"The amazing thing is it's still out there on the street. It's not that we have to go out and re-create this old vintage look. It's already there. It's just not lit."

Preservationists say it's fitting that at a time when halogen, LEDs and video displays are redefining signage, Los Angeles is mounting a neo-neon movement. This is where the neon advertising sign was invented, after all.

Pioneering local car dealer Earle C. Anthony switched on America's first neon sign 80 years ago near the corner of 7th and Flower streets. His 30-foot neon advertisement carried the word "Packard" in large letters.

Anthony got the idea for the sign during a 1923 visit to Paris, where he noticed gas-tube lamps created by French chemist Georges Claude. He paid Claude $2,500 to make two "Packard" signs from bent neon tubing. Anthony installed the first one in Los Angeles and the second at a car dealership he owned in San Francisco.

The Los Angeles sign was a traffic stopper.

According to one account, thousands flocked to see it glow in the dark. The onlookers included an electrical manufacturing company president who quickly scraped together $300,000 to produce and sell the revolutionary signs.

Downtown theater operators were quick to embrace neon. Hotel owners placed 50-foot signboards atop their buildings to attract travelers arriving in the city by rail.

Neon soon was outlining storefronts in bright colors and spelling out business names in vibrant, vivid light. Along the Wilshire Corridor, neon was as ubiquitous as the Streamline Moderne architecture that helped define the street in the 1930s. Wilshire's trendy department stores and extravagant apartment buildings splashed their names on rooftop signs above the elegant boulevard, considered by many to be America's Champs Elysees.

A few miles away in Hollywood, hotels and department stores were topped by even larger neon sign structures. Facing south, most beckoned visitors coming from downtown Los Angeles and shoppers living in upscale neighborhoods such as Hancock Park.

Lights went out on the neon era in February 1942.

That's when a World War II air raid scare prompted Mayor Fletcher Bowron to order the city's bright lights turned off. Authorities were worried that they would be used as nighttime beacons to guide enemy aircraft to Los Angeles targets.

Some lights fell into disrepair during the war. Others were never switched back on because their owners associated the neon look with the prewar era. Many signs went unpainted and were poorly maintained. Soon, flickering, sputtering neon became synonymous with seedy, fading businesses and bad taste.

Some business owners installed sophisticated animated neon signs in the 1950s and '60s. But backlighted plastic signs that used fluorescent lighting became increasingly popular. And it wasn't until the 1980s that neon in Los Angeles was once more seen by some as totally tubular.

Hipster shopkeepers along emerging Melrose Avenue were the first to begin commissioning new neon. Boutiques such as the eye-popping Wacko store -- emblazoned with a red-and-blue neon sign outlined with green, orange and yellow zigzags and dots -- became common. Serious artists began working with neon.

Artists at the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design near MacArthur Park, in fact, were the first to notice that darkened neon signs crowned many of the old buildings in their area.

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