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Diversions : Night Lights : Want to Know Your Way Around Neon Art? Just Hop on Bus and Follow Signs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not everyone will take the Museum of Neon Art’s nighttime bus cruise around Los Angeles seriously--at first. But darned if it doesn’t surprise the skeptics, offering not only another way to look at familiar sites but a fast and filling lesson in the culture, history and architecture of Chinatown, downtown, Beverly Hills and Hollywood.

Hippies at heart and art aficionados may think they’re in their element, but those with yuppie tendencies are made to feel welcome too: mineral water and wine and cheese are served, and the Gray Line bus is quite comfortable. Even the name has upwardly mobile overtones: It’s a bus cruise , not bus tour .

Even before arriving at the museum on Traction Avenue--not far from Union Station and City Hall--the outing reeks of adventure. After all, it is downtown after dark. But there’s plenty of activity around the museum, people milling around outside, some taking in the exhibits inside.

The tour departs about 7:30 p.m. First stop: Chinatown.

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Along the way, tour guide Betty Vick gives her charges tidbits about how neon works, how economical it is to use (it burns 50 to 75 years) and shows examples of how it’s used to create some impressive, attention-grabbing signs.

In the Chinatown mall on Broadway, Vick points out the neon outlining the inverted peaks of Hop Louie’s restaurant, formerly the Golden Pagoda, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Other signs of note are the Buddha and the “Sincere Gifts” sign, which Vick says was installed in the 1940s “and has been glowing ever since.”

The first neon sign in Los Angeles stopped traffic at the Packard dealership at La Brea and Wilshire in 1929. What more in advertising could the owner ask for?

By the ‘30s and ‘40s--a period Vick calls “the movie days of neon"--theater marquees were ablaze with ornate neon signs. L.A.'s first movie district was on Broadway, where premieres included Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” and Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer.”

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As the bus rolls along the street, long ago abandoned for “Hollywood,” many of the marquees are dark but bear familiar names: Palace, Roxie, Cameo, Pantages, Rialto. The neon is long gone from Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre, opened in 1917 as the first theater built for movies. One neon sign that still flickers brightly on Broadway belongs to the Orpheum. The sign now advertises “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II” in Spanish.

The neon-light business dimmed after World War II and, somewhere along the way, was nearly doused by a bad reputation as campy and gaudy. Glendale and Pasadena, for instance, passed ordinances in the ‘60s and ‘70s to rid their cities of neon signs, Vick says. One of the purposes of the museum and the tour is to show that neon done right is an art form, full of history, and can catch the eye and imagination.

A good example of a neon artwork that can turn a busload of relatively mild-mannered passengers into an awe-struck audience is Michael Hayden’s “Generators of the Cylinder,” which kicks into action when noise activates the computer-generated animator. The work, installed under the overhang outside the Jewelry Center across from Pershing Square, is a public-art installation. It was constructed to meet a city requirement that 1% of the cost of a new building go to public art. Hayden also did the popular “Sky’s the Limit” at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

From downtown the bus cruises to Beverly Hills, stopping at La Cienega and Wilshire, where Dolores’ Drive-In sat for 50 years and Unity Savings now stands.

Museum co-founder Lili Lakich thought of the drive-in when she met the interior designer of the bank at an art reception. “I said to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a tribute to Dolores’ incorporating the drive-in in the design?’ ”

That remark resulted in a commission for Lakich and an eye-catching neon sculpture that includes the fender of an actual Chevy Bel Air, neon tubes bent to simulate steam from a coffee cup, counter stools and other drive-in related pieces. A cubbyhole in the back holds the transformers.

The sculpture, which hangs on a wall behind the tellers in an otherwise sterile room, makes such an impact that the bank commissioned another neon sculpture for its Brentwood branch. “The customers certainly find it unique for the environment,” operations officer Felicia Eaton understates with a grin.

From Beverly Hills the tour takes a turn down what could be referred to as Neon Row. Melrose Avenue was once merely a way to get from one side of the city to the other, says Vick. But neon has enjoyed a rebirth in this area, along with trendy restaurants, shops and hangouts.

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“Melrose Avenue is a testament to the fact that neon is being used more and more,” says Sonja Yanoviak, museum assistant curator. “It’s coming out from behind plastic,” a popular technique, she says, that coincided with the plastics boom in the ‘60s. For example, many of McDonald’s arches are neon covered with plastic.

The cruise makes a quick getaway down the Hollywood Freeway, making its last tour stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art, at Temple and Alameda streets. Onlookers will wonder about the people standing on the corner, violently shaking their heads side to side. The action is quite innocent, though. The motion allows one to see the full effects of Bill Bell’s light stick, which in daylight looks more like a vertical bug-killer strip.

The sign spells out Museum of Contemporary Art. Thus, the busload unloads some inhibitions to see this mind-boggling phenomenon.

The museum is 10 years old this year, and, according to Lakich, who has been a neon artist for 25 years, it’s the only one of its kind in the world.

“There was a time when if you called yourself a neon artist it was like a dirty name. Now things are changing,” she says. “Before, artists were being stifled, they weren’t getting feedback, they couldn’t grow.”

The museum has three or four exhibitions each year, and it always needs new art, Lakich adds.

“Because we’re here,” Yanoviak adds, “there’s a forum for information on neon, technology and artists.”

The Museum of Neon Art, 704 Traction Ave., Los Angeles, is open daily, except Mondays. Museum admission is $2.50. Tickets for the tour are $35 and include refreshments. For information on summer bus cruises, call the museum at (213) 617-0274.

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The Facts of Neon

In the early 1900s, French chemist George Claude invented the electrode that holds gases for long periods of time in glass tubing. The result was the basic component of neon signs.

* HOW IT WORKS: Gas is sealed in a glass tube, electricity flows from electrodes through the gas, exciting the gas and making it glow.

* WHAT’S INSIDE: The word neon is a generic term for this light form--and it’s also a misnomer. Neon, which is orange, is just one of the gases pumped into clear, colored or phosphor-coated glass tubes. Neon and argon with mercury (light, bright blue), are the most commonly used gases in commercial signs; others include argon (lavender), helium (peach), krypton (silvery-white) and xenon (blue).

* WHERE IT GETS ITS COLOR: A combination of any of these three will affect the color: the color of the glass, color of the gas, color of the phosphorous coating on the inside of the glass. (A bright orange gas in a ruby-red tube will produce a reddish-orange color, while a bright orange gas in a neon-blue phosphor-coated tube will produce pink.)


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