Cruising the Bright Lights of the Big City

In front of the Museum of Neon Art on the southern edge of downtown Los Angeles, Eric Linxwiler stands atop a London double-decker bus holding a megaphone not half as loud as his shirt, a '70s affair printed with signage. "All the most tacky signage, naturally," he says, anatomizing his shirt: "motel, bar, tattoo, bar. . . . "

Once a month from April through October, this 27-year-old art director and self-confessed ham volunteers as safari guide through L.A.'s neon jungle.

Even before the bus with three dozen passengers rolls, you can see the first sight--right across from the museum. By sheer coincidence, this featureless building was the site of the first neon sign installed in this country. It was a car dealership whose owner, after visiting France and seeing a glowing Cinzano sign, spent a fortune to have Packard spelled out in neon-pumped letters. The novelty caused terrific traffic jams after it went up in 1923.

On the tour, which MONA dubs a cruise, theaters and hotels are highlighted in the heart of downtown. The Million Dollar Hotel on 5th Street promises "fireproof" rooms at "popular prices." Broadway's historic theater district showcases the work of marquee maestro S. Charles Lee. Chinatown's Gin Ling Way boasts an electrified Buddha with glowing red nipples, navel and silver crescent smile.

As the bus is leaving downtown, Linxwiler points out the mystical neon talisman of the Superet Light Church, an immense neon heart bursting with cosmic rays. More worldly sights adorn Hollywood Boulevard's un-renovated nooks and crannies: heavy metal pentagrams, water pipes and a three-armed topless dancer. Even hoary old Mann's Chinese looks fresh to the upper-level tourists who are seated eye to eye with its blinking dragons. The Melrose-Fairfax area brings tips on where to buy the best neon wall clocks, peep at a wiggly retro hula dancer and Linxwiler's rhapsodic praise of Canter's jolly baker.

By the third hour, 12 bottles of complimentary wine have been emptied, and the bus is making its way back along the historic Wilshire corridor, past Linxwiler's home in Koreatown. He later confides, "I actually moved into this neighborhood because I wanted to lean out my window and see that sign for the Gaylord." Honestly, he says, "I couldn't imagine living anywhere else."

* Museum of Neon Art Neon Cruises, Saturdays: June 30, July 28, Aug. 25, Sept. 29, Oct. 27. Arrive by 6:45 p.m. Tours leave 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Museum members $35, nonmembers $45. Reservations recommended, (213) 489-9918.

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