I stopped in to see some old friends Saturday in Glendale. They were all there. The Chris' & Pitt's BBQ sign. The neon diver who used to adorn the Virginia Court Motel. The blue Van de Kamp's Bakery windmill. These and more vintage artifacts of neon Los Angeles are on proud display in the new Glendale home of the Museum of Neon Art. Just as downtown Los Angeles was starting to heat up as a destination again, MONA was forced in 2011 to leave the community where it had been a fixture for three decades. The city of Glendale offered an enticing location — a prominent corner on Brand Boulevard opposite the entrance to Rick Caruso's Americana shopping mall. Opening was originally supposed to happen in 2012. No such luck, for various reasons. After five years in the dark, MONA finally reopened earlier this year in a much-enlarged space, and this month debuted a delightful exhibition, Hats Off to Hollywood. The treasure at the center of the exhibition is the 1930s neon hat that stood over the Hollywood location of the Brown Derby restaurant, along with vintage photos of the famous Vine Street spot and a stylish "coffee shop" sign that hung next door for many years. There also photos of Hollywood neon shot by John Swope in 1938.
While I chatted Saturday with Kim Koga, executive director of the museum since 1999, visitors kept coming in, posing for group selfies in front of the Brown Derby hat and other neon signs. The walk-in traffic is higher than when MONA was downtown, she said. There's room to display a nice selection of signs at any one time — a fresh exhibition will be coming in later in the year — and for the first time the museum has a space for classes in making and restoring neon signs and a small auditorium. There's a good-sized gift shop you can visit without paying for museum admission, with its own selection of neon on display — including a sign commemorating LA's once-venerable Eastside Beer brand.
One sign I enjoyed seeing was the intriguing Asthma Vapineze neon that hung for years outside a residence on North Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood. Neon aficionados Ellen Bloom and Larry Underhill alerted MONA that the home's owner died last year and that the sign was threatened, like so many others, with just being torn down and thrown away. The sign came to MONA along with its backstory: Asthma Vapineze was an inhaler invented by a distraught husband after his wife died of an asthma attack. The business was originally on Highland Avenue, then moved to the Fairfax location before being shut down many years ago. The sign was all that remained.
The museum has three warehouses in Pomona filled with saved neon signs, and is always looking to save more. In the current exhibit is a sign from the old Lanz women's wear store that I used to see hanging in the office of a friend, Miracle Mile architect Lisa Landworth. She donated the sign to MONA and after an expensive restoration it looks great. Restoring the old electrical wiring and broken glass on reclaimed signs is a major expense of running the museum, along with the electricity to light the signs. If you want to help, contact the museum.
The famous Neon Cruise curated by J. Eric Lynxwiler continued even while MONA was dark, and there are two Saturday night events left this summer. Eric (my co-author on Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles) and photographer Tom Zimmerman have a new book diving deep into the legacy of neon Los Angeles. Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles 1925-1965 is from Angel City Press, as was our Wilshire Boulevard book.
At the LA Observed page on Facebook, I've put up some video and more signs, including a neon dog from the old Hot Dog Show in Burbank and the sign that hung over the original Wacko store on Melrose Avenue.