A bright-red sign near the entrance to Los Angeles International Airport on Friday turned out to be inflammatory in more ways than one.
Tourists' jaws dropped and community leaders fumed when the 18-foot sign screaming "Vagina's R' Us" was unveiled in front of a Century Boulevard strip club.
Los Angeles city officials couldn't demand that the sign come down because of its content. So they ordered it removed because of its material.
Building and Safety inspectors ruled that the banner-like sign violated the city's municipal code for pole-mounted signs because it was printed on combustible plastic vinyl.
Club owner Howard White -- who for decades has titillated airport-bound passersby on Century Boulevard with a colorful "Nude Nude Nudes" sign -- removed the banner Friday morning. By noon, he had replaced it with a more modest marquee-style sign reading "Vaginas Are Us."
White was unavailable for comment. But he was quoted in an Associated Press story this week as likening "Vagina's R' Us" to signs promoting the play "The Vagina Monologues."
Few passersby seemed to notice the smaller replacement sign Friday afternoon. The club's parking lot was virtually empty.
But operators of nearby businesses, who for years have worked to spruce up the portion of Century Boulevard between the San Diego Freeway and LAX, were breathing only slightly easier. They had launched a campaign to force the removal of the banner shortly after it was unveiled Tuesday.
Laurie Hughes, executive director of Gateway to L.A., a business-improvement district composed of 40 major business and property owners near the entrance to LAX, said her group contacted both White's landlord and Toys 'R' Us Inc. to protest the sign. Hughes said officials from the toy retailer raised the issue of trademark infringement with White.
Friday afternoon, Hughes notified the toy company of the new sign and its wording.
"Once he spells out the 'are' instead of using an 'R,' he's probably OK," Hughes said of White. "The property owner is a member of our business district association. He can't do anything because he has a lease that isn't up until August of 2009."
As for the sign's content, "about all we can do is get him on misuse of apostrophes," she said.
Although nondescript from busy Century Boulevard, the Century Lounge since 1981 has been best known for its psychedelic red-and-orange "Nude Nude Nudes" sign. It had been a 24-hour bowling alley/cocktail lounge/coffee shop called Carolina Pines in the 1950s and '60s, when numerous factories were built in the area around LAX.
As manufacturing plants gave way to large hotels, White, a former talent agent and the son of the original proprietor, sought to boost business by staging lingerie shows.
By 1977, the place had become a nude bar and a disco called Carolina West, where alcohol was served. When White lost his liquor license after his lawyer failed to file renewal papers in time, he ditched the disco and decided to go all nude/no alcohol, he said in a 1994 Times interview.
Whether the "vaginas" sign was to be a permanent fixture on Century Boulevard remained unclear Friday.
Alan Matthew of Chief Neon Sign Co. said his firm had been asked by White to repair the club's sign, which apparently was scorched by a fire long before the "combustible" vagina banner was placed over it.
"We're going to refurbish it. They give us the artwork and we produce it, although I couldn't believe it when I heard that banner said 'Vagina's R' Us,' " he said.