Landscape Electric

Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and University Professor at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s."

Urban renewal can sometimes be an expensive proposition: tearing down entire districts, constructing vast public works, cutting through neighborhoods with freeways and boulevards. Urban renewal can sometimes function as moral renewal by tapping into better identities, energized by the best imperatives of culture and religion. Sometimes, urban renewal can be as simple as the relighting of a neon sign on Wilshire, Hollywood or Sunset boulevard, lights that recover the past and point to an equally bright urban future.

Neon! Remnants of a lost Los Angeles, city of the mind, remembered and yearned for, the neon lights of L.A.--celestial fires of another sort, green, gold, ruby red, electric blue--guide us down the Wilshire corridor, up through Hollywood and out along Sunset Boulevard west. If Paris is the City of Lights, L.A. is the City of Neon, possessed of a comparable (yet antithetical) beauty and capable as well, like all great cities, of giving rise in the magic of the night to hungers of body, mind and spirit.

"The lights were wonderful," noted detective Philip Marlowe, driving through the city in Raymond Chandler's "The Little Sister" (1949). "There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights 15 stories high, solid marble. There's a boy who really made something out of nothing."

Something out of nothing? Is that not a good description of a town that, in the 1920s and 1930s, boomed and boosted itself into an important U.S. city? One of those boomers and boosters, Packard dealer Earle C. Anthony, visiting Paris in 1922, beheld a new kind of electric sign, devised by Georges Claude, who owned the company Claude Neon. The company made a glass tube filled with argon gas that, when an electric current passed through it, glowed with colors, sassy and bright. Like George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924), neon announced the 1920s as a decade enamored of urban sophistication. Before he returned home, Anthony commissioned three orange and blue neon signs saying PACKARD, one of which he installed in 1923 atop his dealership.

Over the next two decades, until 1942, Wilshire Boulevard, together with the boulevards of Hollywood, thrust Los Angeles into a golden age of neon. Few aspects of the city were more expressive of the improbable, even arcade nature of L.A. than these pathways of light, which, like the city itself, took simple materials and made of them a visual landscape and language of dreams.

Driving down these neon corridors by night, writers such as James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, John O'Hara, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, William Faulkner, Christopher Isherwood, Budd Schulberg and Raymond Chandler, epic poet of the city, felt themselves in the presence, as Fitzgerald put it, of a vast and meretricious beauty: a city in the borderlands of fact and fantasy, dream and desire, corruption and innocence. For Chandler especially, the neon-lit hotels, apartment houses, stores, bars, restaurants and theaters offered by night a landscape electric with subliminal power.

Cuban-born Adolfo V. Nodal, today general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department, felt the power of these neon signs in a direct and personal way. Perhaps it was because pre-Castro Havana was also a city of neon light, or perhaps it was because Nodal, a Chandler fan, had just finished "The Little Sister," with its brief but effective testimony to the power of neon. In any event, Nodal devoted himself to relighting the neon signs surrounding MacArthur Park. It turned out to be the first step of a decade-plus program called LUMENS, an acronym for Living Urban Museum of Electric and Neon Signs but also a play on the Latin word for light. At the relatively minor cost of about $400,000, LUMENS has relit dozens of neon signs along what is today called the Historic Wilshire Neon Corridor. The program is currently taking aim at 43 neon signs in the Historic Hollywood Neon District.

In February 1942, after an air-raid scare, Mayor Fletcher Bowron ordered the neon lights of L.A. turned off, lest they guide Japanese planes or offshore submarines (Goleta, near Santa Barbara, had just been shelled) to their targets. Already, many neon signs had gone dim in the Depression, casualties of hard times. Thus, starting in the mid-1980s with the MacArthur Park Project, when electrical contractor Ray Neal, owner of Sun Valley-based Standard Electrical Services, took his electricians atop roofs of MacArthur Park and Wilshire, they encountered signs that had been dim for as long as 60 years. The oldest sign to be restored, the animated bowler announcing JENSEN'S RECREATION CENTER in Echo Park (technically not neon but incandescent lamp in its technology), dated from 1919.

Miraculously--and here also is a powerful symbol for urban renewal--most of the neon signs were in pretty good structural shape after more than a half century on the skyline. Some of them still had vestiges of their original gas. Most needed little structural repair and could be brought back to light within two weeks, with the installation of new tubes, wiring and transformers. Electricians discovered that more than 700 sockets of the nearly 80-year-old JENSEN'S RECREATION CENTER sign were in working order.

Elected officials were quick to grasp the implications of Nodal's proposal to relight the city. LUMENS used existing resources, for one thing; it was simple and easy to understand; it recovered a valuable aspect of the Los Angeles heritage; and, like neon always will, it bespoke the magic of the city. Mayor Richard Riordan, then running for reelection, and City Council members Nate Holden, Jackie Goldberg, Mike Hernandez and John Ferraro, in whose districts could be found the bulk of surviving neon, were early backers of LUMENS, as was John Molloy of the Community Redevelopment Agency. In June 1996, these officials and others gathered for a ceremony in which Riordan, to commemorate the completion of the first phase of the project, flipped a switch that illuminated 25 restored neon signs along the Wilshire corridor. Then on to Hollywood, where 43 surviving, relightable neon signs had been located.

Nodal and his colleagues in the Cultural Affairs Department must be credited for one of the most imaginative and cost-effective redevelopment schemes in Los Angeles history. The LUMENS project has literally relit history and has brought forward to present-day L.A. the mood and mystery of the city in its Chandler years. The city also supports the Museum of Neon Art, which preserves signs and displays original electronic art. The museum received a grant from the city that helped it relocate downtown, to the neighborhood where Anthony's Packard sign convoked car culture's brash blend of consumerism and high style. One need only to drive the outer portions of Sunset Boulevard, a pathway of garish light leading to the wine-dark sea, to realize that contemporary neon is alive and well in L.A. The re-illuminated signs of the LUMENS project and the Museum of Neon Art, however, supplement the largely Hollywood and motion-picture-oriented neon of the late 1990s with the more subdued visual signatures of an earlier literature-dominated era.

These relit signs, after all, are the very signs that guided Marlowe through the city on a thousand lonely nights. WILSHIRE EBELL, ANCELLE, GAYLORD, HOLLYWOOD ROOSEVELT, HOLLYWOOD WILCOX, MAX FACTOR, EGYPTIAN, PANTAGES, MUSSO & FRANK, HOTEL KNICKERBOCKER, TAFT BUILDING: These are the signs that captivated Chandler as the perfect symbol of Los Angeles as a city of illusion struggling up from the shadowlands of its submerged psychic life to the rooftop glitz and glamour of neon. Even today, the NEWBURY SCHOOL OF BEAUTY sign on Hollywood Boulevard bespeaks the dreams of glamour that were then bringing, and still continue to bring, generations of young women to the city, hoping for success in the movies.

EL ROYALE and RAVENSWOOD signs on Rossmore, VIVIAN apartments on North Bronson, CASTLE ARGYLE on South Westlake, DE MILLE MANOR on Argyle--all still evoke the domestic dramas, the private ordeals and triumphs, that transpired on these premises in the Chandler era.

A platinum blond lights a cigarette by the nighttime window. She stares out across the darkened city at the other neon lights. Pinching a fleck of tobacco from her tongue with manicured nails, she inhales once again. Arching her pencil-thin eyebrows, she hears the knock at the door, the ring of the telephone. Her name is Carole, Norma, Bette, Joan, Barbara--whatever. Her real name is Los Angeles. She is at once a survivor and a doomed dame. She is sexy, brassy, vibrant, a daughter of the Midwest, half-frightened yet thrilled with what she has become here on the coast. She is enamored of the vast and improbable pageant--and the loneliness--of her life.

The neon sign atop her apartment building casts its opalescent light, the colors of the 1930s--ruby red, electric blue, lime green--across her made-up face. She waits in the darkness amid the neon for the future she is determined to make happen. Let it come now! Let the knock on the door, the ring of the telephone, be the beginning of what she had come here for in the first place, a new life. She'll take it all and be glad of it: the big dreams, the kisses, the glory, the laughs, the tears, the bad falls--the long goodbyes.*

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