Tour Los Angeles during its ‘Golden Age of Neon’

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The premiere of Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels, featured 200 searchlights, advertising balloons, and smokescreens in the sky onto which the film screen title was projected.
Courtesy of Angel City Press

There once was a time when Los Angeles was arguably the neon capital of the world, with glowing signs on buildings and rooftops across the city. Some of the coolest signs live on at such places as the Museum of Neon Art (which just restored and relit a sign from one of the Brown Derby’s locations). Now, a new book titled Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles, 1925–1960documents that“Golden Age of Neon” with a spread of more than 200 photos.

Written by historian and photographer Tom Zimmerman with design by J. Eric Lynxwiler, a neon historian and graphic designer, the book showcases hundreds of images captured by such photographers as J. Howard Mott, John Swope, and Will Connell (all of whom were known for photographing neon) and commercial photography houses of the time.

Looking down Hollywood Boulevard. “By 1946, the Warner Theatre had a new marquee and blade sign, part of a concentrated effort to promote Hollywood as the must-see entertainment destination in Southern California for locals and tourists alike,” the authors write.

More than just a luminous picturebook, Spectacular Illumination also tells the story of neon in Los Angeles, a history that, “mixed the impact of Hollywood and great design, two elements that are so important to the history of Los Angeles,” says Zimmerman in promotional materials for the book.

While it’s true that neon signs can be found across the nation, Zimmerman says, LA’s relationship with neon is unique because of “the glorious Hollywood angle, the number of signs on endless commercial streets, and Vine Street as ‘neon central.’ For a certain period of filmmaking, it seemed like every movie defined Hollywood with neon signs in the scene.”

Neon signs fell out of fashion in the early 1960s, says Zimmerman, when cheaper, more reliable plastic signs gained popularity. Looking at the photos of streets lit up with the glow of dozens of the brightly lit signs, it’s hard not to yearn for the heyday of neon.

“[Photographer] John Swope celebrated the glow of Los Angeles’s drive-ins as their bountiful neon tubes reflected off shiny, silhouetted automobiles. A McDonnell’s carhop is on the job.”
“The titles of a 1961 double feature at the Belmont Theatre on East Second Street in Long Beach were a bad omen,” writes the book’s authors. “After a forty-eight-year run, even its flamboyant marquee and Art Deco features couldn’t save the Belmont from closure in 1977.”
“The Associated Oil Company was a California-based petroleum firm whose premium gasoline was sold under the Flying-A brand. Taking a cue from drive-in restaurants, the building has a flying-saucer awning and glowing centerpiece for added height and visibility.”
“A scene at 971 Wilshire Blvd. paints Los Angeles as a neon still life. The corner drugstore in 1940 placed its neon collection above the door, in the front window, and around the corner with a unique combination of neon and backlit glass in an Alka-Seltzer sign.”
“A pedestrian walking village at its heart, Gin Ling Way was built in the neon era, so its structures were coated in brightly colored fascia signs, with neon piping outlining the buildings and their fanciful rooflines. It was a glowing destination unlike any other in the city. “
“The Department of Water and Power documented the wild celebration set off by the 1936 arrival of electrical power generated by Hoover Dam. More than one million people descended upon downtown to partake in the “Light on Parade” festivities that stretched from City Hall at the north end to Olympic Boulevard at the south. Broadway was nicknamed “The Canyon of Lights” for the event.”
“Commercial photographer Richard Stagg took the picture of the Vogue Drug Co. at 2001 W. Sixth St., in 1926. It is a case study of American advertising style as bulb signs were being replaced by neon.”

Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles, 1925–1960 was recently released on Angel City Press (via L.A. Taco).

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