September 12, 2013

Photo Essay: The Neon of LA, and Its One Darkened Dragon (Updated for 2018)

[Ed: 9/13/13 10:48 a.m. some edits made for accuracy; Last Updated 7/17/18 6:39 PM PT]

There's a reason why people identify New York City by its Times Square, London by its Piccadilly Circus, Las Vegas by its Strip (and, secondarily, its Fremont Street).

Tourists are drawn to flickering, flashing, animated light shows like birds and cats to shiny, sparkly things. Once, through the power of the noble gas known as neon, a city center could be transformed into something that people would travel long distances just to see - not to do anything, just to see it, upward-facing gazes illuminated, eyes transfixed, barely blinking.

If I ever had some time to kill during my semester abroad in London, I'd just go to Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square and watch the lights. It felt like a show unto itself, reminiscent of dark, cold seasons when I would sit in the living room with my father to "watch the tree," on one of the few nights he was home from work.

West of the Mississippi River, along Route 66 all the way to Santa Monica's End of the Road, neon signs were used as a beacon in the night, to beckon weary and wary travelers into their establishments - car washes, casinos, gas stations, hair salons, fortune tellers, theaters, diners, motels - accommodations and attractions along the roadside worthy of a pit stop.

Few of those neon signs out here in car culture are ever seen as more than a blur - even today, perhaps especially today, when neon is seen as vintage or retro or even passé.

We drivers are alerted to the neon-topped corporate tower along Miracle Mile...

...the extant rotating sign for a long-gone barber shop on Fairfax...

...the ecclesiastical glow of Rampart Boulevard...

...Downtown discount clothing...

...and a tasty snack.

Downtown's Broadway, the most concentrated strip of historic theaters in the country, used to be a virtual fireworks show of glittering neon, but now only a few of the restored marquees and blade signs (like those of the Palace and Los Angeles theaters, thanks to LA's own Museum of Neon Art) remain lit, even when the venue is closed for the night.

You can get out of your car and walk around LA's "new" Chinatown (the original Chinese immigrants having been displaced from their settlement by the construction of Union Station)...

...whose abundant neon has also been restored by MONA...

...preserving the history of illuminated pagodas...

...happy Buddhas... and pop gift shops...

...and other "authentic" signage promoting all things as "Chinese" as they can make it seem to attract visitors.

The LA attraction that's probably closest to Times Square, Hollywood Boulevard, is a main thoroughfare walkable enough for tourists and locals alike, close to plenty of hotels and nightclubs and restaurants that still light up their signs of twisted glass in dazzling colors to attract eyeballs and appetites for excitement.

There's a "celebrity bar" just off the boulevard, where no celebrities go...

...plenty of souvenirs...

...martinis and Old Fashioneds...

...and the "new" theaters of Hollywood, movie palaces like the Egyptian and the El Capitan which brought moviegoing audiences all the way out from Downtown LA to the sticks.

historic photo courtesy Kurt Wahlner

Except, the Chinese Theater lost its neon, first installed in 1958, during a 2001 restoration that aimed to return the theater to its original 1920s splendor.

Photo: Michelle Gerdes

The sign was trashed after MONA's initial attempts to save it failed, and, exposed to the elements, the dragon has deteriorated tragically. Unlit for what feels like ages, the historic relic was finally scooped up by MONA and placed into storage, where it has stayed for six years.

Photo: Michelle Gerdes

In 2013, the Museum of Neon Art launched a campaign not just to salvage the neon sign, but save it, reignite it, and reanimate it.

Probably the big difference between MONA and The Neon Museum in Vegas is that MONA tries to keep the neon alive, in its original placement, rather than merely rescue it from demolition and put it on display in a sad pile of rubble. And it has been successful with this in several instances around LA. (With all of the classic casino implosions, perhaps preservation-in-place is impossible in Vegas...)

circa 2018

But unfortunately—despite the success of repainting and relighting it—the current owner of the Chinese, TCL, doesn't want it back.

circa 2018

I can't help but champion an attempt to reclaim what was once lost, to save something from peril, to rectify a mistake made.

And I hate to see a light go out, to see the Chinese remain dark when the rest of the Boulevard is lit up like a Christmas tree.

You can see many of MONA's restoration projects and lots of other lovely lit-up neon on its "Neon Cruise," a nighttime bus tour that takes its passengers from Downtown LA to Chinatown, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Miracle Mile and back again.

Or just get out of your car and take a walk down Broadway, Hollywood Blvd, Santa Monica Blvd, or Fairfax.

To see the restored neon dragon (which is just half of the original), visit the Museum of Neon Art's new location in Glendale.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Behind the Scenes at Grauman's Chinese Theater
Photo Essay: Neon Boneyard, Vegas
Photo Essay: Fremont Street Experience, Vegas

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