Downtown Los Angeles, much of which was once a sketchy no-go zone, is in the midst of regeneration, and neon – radiant gas sealed in hand-twisted glass tubes and sparked by electrodes – is lighting the way. Here’s what the people on the forefront of the movement have to say about the Los Angeles neon renaissance:
Saving LA’s neon
During World War II the city’s neon signs were extinguished for fear of Japanese attack, and for the most part were never switched back on. But 25 years ago Havana-born Adolfo Nodal, then working for LA’s cultural affairs department, decided to do something about it. He began the huge task of flicking the switches on Los Angeles neon again, after more than half a century.
Nodal started with the epic rooftop signs designed to be seen by drivers on the newly built freeways, mostly advertising hotels and apartment buildings.
‘On the rooftops, the total re-enforcing of the scaffold structure was the first step,’ Nodal says. ‘Thankfully they were all very well built from the late 1920s to the early 1940s by migrating steel workers from the east coast.
‘ The restoration required stripping and full repair of all channel letters and metal design elements, full electrical fitting and new wiring from the sign to the main. Plus, all new neon glass, gas and electrodes. Add a high-quality transformer and they are shining bright.’
That was just the beginning. From Wilshire Corridor to Hollywood’s historic cinemas and the fantastical theater of Downtown LA, Adolfo and his team – known collectively as Lumens – restored 185 signs in 25 years.
Bright lights on Broadway
Tour guide Stuart Wood has become a student of the results, which he sees on his nightly bar tours – a fast-talking and wildly entertaining whirl around Art Deco architecture, legendary movie spots, mob sites and, of course, neon. The tour features a stop for selfies under the glorious neon portico of the United Artists Building – built by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Senior, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin in homage to Segovia’s Cathedral and restored as the Ace Hotel.
At the Freehand Hotel (which has the tallest neon sign in the city), Wood explains how gangsters were chased out of LA and moved to Vegas, taking the neon aesthetic of Downtown with them.
‘Downtown LA’s vintage neon reminds us that before Vegas, this was Sin City,’ he says. ‘What was considered vice in LA in the 1930s and 40s became entertainment in Vegas in the decades to follow. The reawakening of the lights is symbolic of the most dynamic part of LA that for generations had fallen off the map.’
Lighting up the valley
It’s not all about Downtown, though. In the San Fernando Valley, north of the city, two airport hangars house the Valley Relics Museum, an endearing personal collection of ephemera, including an animated neon mustang caught in an eternal gallop and other salvaged signage.
A few blocks away, Los Angeles neon artist Michael Flechtner has his workshop, where a suspended neon dolphin swims through the air, sketches, wires and gadgets sit on the worktops alongside his distinctive 3-D neon pieces and stacks of straight glass tubes await bending.
Flechtner heats a slender tube and shows how it can be artfully twisted into shape, before attaching electrodes to each end and inserting a mercury bubble which, when combined with argon gas, will create a blue light. He then heats the glass again to sterilize it. A vacuum is created and gas is flowed into the tube which, in a gasp-inducing flash, floods it with colorful light and life.
Part scientist and part craftsman, Flechtner leaves no doubt neon is an art form.
Museum of Neon Art and the neon cruise
Nowhere is that more obvious than at the Museum of Neon Art, in the satellite city of Glendale. Contemporary works – some with delicate strands and scrolls of entwined tubing and some embedded in driftwood – are displayed alongside vintage signage rescued by the museum. The most spectacular example is a glimmering 37-foot dragon which once adorned Grauman’s Chinese Theater and was dismantled and dumped; one of the city’s greatest neon treasures, left for dead.
The museum’s Saturday-night Neon Cruise is conducted by author and preservation consultant Eric Lynxwiler from a double-decker open-top bus. As the bus hurtles through the LA night, Lynxwiler stands with a megaphone on the top deck, hitting riders with a three-hour stream of stories, history, architecture and jokes – many at the expense of Downtown’s gentrifiers.
The trip is funny but never fatuous, with an edge often missing in tourist-focused offerings. It’s also saturated with information about the city, from the neon pagodas of Chinatown to the legend of the lost neon light found deep in the basement of Clifton’s Cafeteria, still glowing 85 years after being installed. There’s a stop to check out the modern neon wall at Grand Central Market, and a gorgeous drive through Hollywood as it darkens and the neon starts to glow.
Los Angeles neon is light come alive
Along with pretty much everyone talking about neon these days, Eric is in the grip of an incandescent love affair. While neon is a classic symbol of modernity, it is also the antithesis of mass-production, each letter on each sign having been twirled into shape by hand. In that sense the lights are a link to Los Angeles’ artisan origins.
But it is perhaps the visual and spiritual aspect of neon being fiercely alive that ultimately explains its appeal. Michael Flechtner describes neon as ‘fire inside a tube.’ It’s hard to resist the primal allure of a flame, and when that flame is suspended high in the air, captured in curlicues of glass and backed by a setting sun and a chorus line of palm trees – what’s not to like?
Helena Smith traveled to see Los Angeles neon thanks to LA Tourism. Visitors can learn to make neon at MONA.