Issue: Issue Summer 2006

Hollywood City of Lights - Magic of Neon


When Los Angeles car dealer and early radio pioneer, Earl C. Anthony, returned from Paris in 1923, he gave the city a gift that would transform the evening sky—a pair of orange and blue neon signs to display above his Packard dealership. Innovation and salesmanship were rampant in this city and soon glowing tubes of glass were incorporated into the building boom occurring throughout the city. By the 1930’s, the proliferation of elegant, art deco, rooftop neon signs turned Los Angles into a mecca for tourists who delightedly drove the streets of the city.

 In February 1942, at the height of World War II, Mayor Fletcher Bowron ordered the area blacked out and many of the signs were extinguished, the darkened city deemed safe from a feared night attack. Many of the larger rooftop signs would remain dark until 1996 when Adolfo V. Nodal, former General Manager of the Cultural Affairs Department led the effort to preserve these antique signs.

Inspired by the words of novelist Raymond Chandler, “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it; it smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There out to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights, 15 stores high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing…” For more than 12 years, Nodal championed the relighting project to create an outdoor museum of antique neon signs identifying 91 signs for restoration. Nodal has retired from the department, yet the glow, so to speak, of the project had not dimmed. Today many of those signs have been restored and, to his credit, many more new signs have been created.

Initially the project brought together the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and Cultural Affairs Department as it was seen as a first step to revitalizing neighborhoods suffering from urban decay. Today each time a sign is relit or a new one created that is reminiscent of the period, it’s a celebration—a celebration of the city’s unique history and a promise of its resplendent future.

Such was the case last October when one of the most magnificent and loved of these historic signs was relit and once again glows in the nighttime sky. The Broadway Hollywood sign at Hollywood Blvd. and Vine Street, although shut off during World War II, had shined over that famed intersection until the Broadway closed in 1979. For some, this signified the beginning of the dark days in Hollywood. Preservationists, business and community leaders gathered on a nearby rooftop as the sign was relit thanks to the considerable investment of the KOR Group. It will now shine brightly for future generations who will live in the condos being developed in the former department store.

With the mammoth rooftop neon signs now lighting the way, neon is once again becoming the signage of choice for businesses that want to make a Hollywood impression. Hollywood & Vine Restaurant, the Hollywood Toy Store, the El Capitan Theatre are just a few of the more spectacular additions to the Boulevard streetscape.

Neon is a chemical element that makes up about 2 parts per 65,000 of the earth’s atmosphere. British chemists Sir William Ramsey and Morris Travers discovered the element in the atmosphere while they were studying liquid air in 1898. They named the gas neon for the Greek world meaning “new.” It was immediately recognized as a new element by its unique glow when electrically stimulated.

Little or no use was made of the new found element until 1910 when Georges Claude experimented with the effects of passing an electrical discharge through the neon gas. He made the first public display of the neon lamp in Paris in 1910. He is credited with introducing neon signs to the United States by selling the two signs that read “Packard” to Earl C. Anthony for $24,000. Neon lighting quickly became a popular fixture in outdoor advertising. People would stop and stare at those first neon signs dubbed “liquid fire.”

One of the biggest differences between old and modern neon is the means of generating electricity and, obviously, the price. The $24,000 original Packard signs’ cost, in today’s dollars, could have financed the relighting of all the city’s old neon.

Original neon used heavy transformers made form wrapped copper wire coiled around an iron core, materials which were also donated to the war effort. The new neon signs are lightweight, less costly transistorized transformers.

Even with new technology, neon signs still require glass artisans to expertly create the angle and curve combinations, intricately heating and bending glass tubing. When the design is completed, gas is pumped into the tubing and electrified. Today, these signs, an inexpensive use of electricity, combine art and technology into forms limited only by skill and imagination. As Hollywood begins the 21st century, its rebirth is visually associated with the glow and wonder discovered a century ago and Los Angeles has been re-established as the nation’s City of Lights.