The Glass Menagerie : Melrose Avenue Leads the Way in the Neon Renaissance

Times Staff Writer

A tourist from Pennsylvania gazed at the neon sign above one of Melrose Avenue's offbeat stores. The eye-popping lights glowing red and blue spelled out the name "WACKO"in capital letters two feet high. Around the border were yellow, orange and green zigzags and dots, an inspired combination that added to the overall crazed effect.

"It has a charm," the tourist said, smiling. "I personally like these kinds of things."

The aesthetic appeal of the sign was lost on some of the store's trendy neighbors, who told Wacko's owner that the Dayglo colors lacked refinement. But the wacky electric logo erected two years ago is not out of place along this renovated stretch of Melrose from Fairfax Avenue east to La Brea Avenue, where the new-wave boutiques, restaurants and specialty stores have gone neon.

Once relegated to the kingdom of bad taste, neon signs are making a comeback in major cities across the country. Tod Swormstedt, editor of Signs of the Times, a Cincinnati-based trade magazine for the sign industry, said as many as 15 schools teaching neon glass blowing have opened in the last three years to fill the demand for craftsmen. Although he noticed the first signs of a neon revival eight years ago, he said the trend "hasn't reached it's peak at all."

One place aglow with the renaissance is Melrose, where the concentration of dazzling lights regularly attracts carloads of camera-toting tourists. Nearly every business on the avenue has neon, some using it as decoration inside as well as out. Even the tiniest boutiques have neon in their windows, displaying a sizzling line of pink, red or blue light like a badge of membership in an exclusive club. The signs appear in a wild variety of shapes and colors, illuminating what had been a dark and uninviting street.

"It's like grafitti, neon grafitti," said Alice Wolf, founder of Flip clothing store. "It lights up the darkness. It's magical."

Styles range from vintage and cute to far-out.

Flip brings back animated neon signage, showing a rock 'n' roll couple rocking out on top of a record disc. On the other extreme is Drake's erotica store, the front of which is dominated by a dramatic construction of plexiglass and vivid green neon tubing that looks like a lightning bolt. According to co-owner Ernie Garret, it is supposed to be a volcano erupting, a metaphor for sexual climax.

Down the street, the name of a funky used-clothing shop, Aaardvark's, is spelled out over and over again in simple block letters across the windows of an Art Deco storefront. It is bright, cheery and, the store's owner said, good public relations.

"Neon is a very unusual medium," said Joe Stromei. "It's very 'up.' It makes people happy. When I've deliberately left the signs off, people say, 'What happened?' like there was a death in the family. Neon makes people happy on a subliminal level."

The return of neon has caused some connoisseurs to wax philosophical about its meaning. Hollywood Neon's Larry Burns, who sells custom-made art work for $175 and up, said neon is "the incarnation of a new mood." Sometime between the 1960s and the late 1970s, public taste in art and home furnishings switched from soft and natural to hard, slick and glossy. "It corresponds to a need," he said. "Why did stained glass come back? Neon just fits in in a lot of ways now."

Most observers say the rage for neon on Melrose began with Flip, a 3-year-old clothing store that caters to New Wavers. But Alice Wolf, who also operates a boutique in downtown Los Angeles, said she and her partner-husband Paul didn't choose their sign to be trendy. Aside from a love of neon as an art form, Wolf said, the reason she was drawn to the flashy medium was firmly rooted in economics.

"Have you ever been to Las Vegas?" she asked. "The people who put neon in Vegas wanted to make bucks. Neon is 24-hour advertising."

According to Michael Webb, author of "The Magic of Neon," the technology was perfected in 1910 by Frenchman Georges Claude. It was introduced in the United States by Earl C. Anthony, who bought two signs in Paris in 1923 and installed them on top of his Packard showroom in Los Angeles.

From the 1920s through 1940s, neon was the preferred medium of sign makers. Classic examples from these eras ranged from the flashy extravagance of Vegas casinos to the whimsical designs adorning small businesses. The sign above John's Pipe Shop in Hollywood is a good example of the latter. Built in the '40s, the neon was shaped to form puffs of smoke rising from a pipe.

"A neon sign was an event whenever it was put up. People went out to see it, like a movie premiere," said neon artist Lili Lakich, who co-founded the Museum of Neon Art in downtown Los Angeles in 1981.

In the 1950s, however, neon began to fall into disrepute, no longer associated with glamour and progress but with blight and decay. New lighting techniques and the rise of plastic signs contributed to its decline.

According to Lakich, many cities began to pass ordinances banning neon because planners felt it looked "junkier" than the plastic-faced signs. Many of those ordinances are still in effect, including one in the city of Glendale, she said.

(A similar ban is being considered for the Park Mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard. Other communities, such as Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades, have adopted strict guidelines governing the type and placement of neon signs.)

But in the 1960s, a new generation of artists and craftsmen rediscovered neon and began to experiment with it. Gradually, their work was noticed by architects and designers, who began to incorporate elements of neon into their own projects.

By 1980, a shift in public taste was firmly under way, and neon began to reappear on the fronts of stores, primarily small businesses that catered to a young, hip clientele. Local neon sign companies that weathered the lean years when neon was not in vogue started picking up business. For some, it meant getting over an initial discomfort with the new, more stylized designs.

"Some of the old-timers think it's ridiculous, what's happening with neon today. It's not like the old-time sign business," said Rio Score II, who runs a company founded by his father in 1946. "In the old days it was plain and painted with neon in front of it. Today it's sculpture and curving pieces of glass."

Score's firm, Alert Lite Neon in Glendale, has built several of the signs along Melrose, including those for Cadillac Ranch, Off the Wall and the Starlite Cafe. The company employs 10 glass blowers who shape the neon tubing using techniques that have changed little since the early days of the craft, Score said.

The signs are made entirely by hand. The process begins with the heating of glass tubes over a flame and bending them according to a pattern drawn on a sheet of asbestos or paper. Electrodes are fused to the ends of the tube, which is then cleansed with a 25,000-volt electrical charge. Remaining impurities and air are removed by a vacuum pump.

Next the tube is heated to 600 degrees. After a few minutes, it is infused with a gas--usually neon or argon--and sealed. It is charged again with about 15,000 volts, which ionizes the gas and produces the distinctive glow.

According to Score, whose company is one of the few local wholesale neon businesses remaining, about 150 colors can be produced. Manufacturers say a good neon sign can last as long as 30 years with proper maintenance. It also consumes less electricity than incandescent or fluorescent lighting.

Prices range from $600 for the futuristic logo for Melrose's Rocket Video store to $3,500 for Drake's volcano.

Score and others in the industry say more neon is being used as interior lighting and as architectural ornamention. One example is the Bank of Los Angeles in West Hollywood, an Art Deco building outlined in bands of red and green neon. A large neon sculpture by Lili Lakich recently was mounted inside Unity Savings in Beverly Hills.

Observers say the neon sign will continue to flourish, although some people fear the trend is beginning to show signs of fatigue.

Paul Greenstein designed some of the first of the new wave of neon signs on Melrose, including those for Flip, Vinyl Fetish, Cowboys and Poodles, and Wacko. He retired from the trade when it became apparent to him that neon had become fashionable: "After a while, everyone wanted signs in pink neon script in the window. It was so cute."

Steve Giumarra owns Rocket Video, one of the newest shops on the avenue. His fiery red and green neon sign was inspired by the Jetsons, a popular cartoon series from the 1960s. On either side of him are a Chinese restaurant and an ice cream parlor. Both have neon signs.

"Neon is fun to look it, and it's part of Melrose," he said. "But it would be nice for some people not to do neon, just to add to the variety."

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