A piece of L.A. history awaits a return to its neon glamour

A piece of L.A. history awaits a return to its neon glamour
Kim Koga, director of the Museum of Neon Art, with Grauman's Chinese Theatre neon sign that is being stored in a warehouse in Pomona for restoration. MONA once located in downtown Los Angeles, is 18 months away from re-opening in Glendale. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A bit of lost Los Angeles lives for now in a Pomona warehouse, perhaps one day to reside in Glendale.

Glimpse it and get goose bumps, even on a sticky summer day.


The soft curve of the Brown Derby's hat. The dragon that danced outside Grauman's Chinese.

The worn characters above a prewar beauty salon in Little Tokyo.


These are the signs that used to light up this town.

Plug in the oldest ones and they clickety-clack, clickety-clack, bringing to mind rumble seats and RCA Victor 78s.

For more than 30 years, those behind the Museum of Neon Art have searched for signs — scouting out demolitions, digging in Dumpsters, peering into dusty old garages. As they've removed glass-tube letters in a race to beat bulldozers, they've pulled out dead pigeons and been stung by nesting bees, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Some signs are beautiful, some culturally significant, some feats of glass and gas wizardry.


Some are all these things but still were tossed in the trash by eager developers.

Los Angeles always rushes toward the new, the shiny, the bright, making preservation here problematic.

And so the neon museum — which at the moment has no public exhibit space beyond the signs it displays at Universal CityWalk — is raising money in an online campaign, trying to put one of Grauman's dragons back together.

The sign, made up of two pieces, is more than 40 feet long. It is busted and rusted and bent.

It needs a thorough de-gunking. It needs fresh paint. It needs new wiring and glass tubing in numerous colors and extensive work to recreate the complex sequencing that animated it.

In all, it needs about $35,000 of love — which is spectacularly frustrating, given that when MONA first asked for the sign, it needed only to be plugged in.

The dragon is one of a pair that for 43 years flanked the forecourt of the famed Hollywood Boulevard theater. Above marquees announcing the latest films, one beast faced east and one faced west, their bodies lighting up tail to head, rippling alive in yellow and green.

For a moment in each cycle, all went dark but their eyes, which flashed bright in the night.


Put up in 1958 to give an old movie palace new pizazz, the dragons were slated to come down in 2001. Tastes had changed, and Warner Bros. and Paramount, which owned the theater at the time, wanted it to look like it originally did when it opened in 1927.

MONA was promised a dragon and, at great expense, booked the crane and flatbed truck needed to transport it.

Then on moving day, the theater reneged, with no explanation.

For several years the neon dragons' whereabouts remained a mystery — until a former MONA board member looking out a car window spotted them in a prop yard off the 5 Freeway.

First Eric Lynxwiler shouted out. Then he paid a visit. He found the yard unguarded and saw that, in the time that had passed since the signs came down, their glass had disappeared, and their metal had rusted. One dragon had been tossed on top of the other, which was collapsing under the weight.

Lynxwiler took photos. He spread the word. Then one day in 2006, the prop lot's manager called Hollywood preservationist Robert Nudelman, saying the signs had been deemed too far gone to be saved and were about to be tossed.

MONA got a truck and grabbed the dragons — one for its collection and one for Hollywood Heritage, the organization Nudelman helped run — "but it should never have happened that way," museum director Kim Koga said.

Parts of the signs likely got left behind in the rush, there was so little time.

In recent years, MONA's dragon has shared its owner's nomadic existence as the museum has bumped from spot to spot, often struggling financially.

Two years ago, the city of Glendale came to the rescue, offering financial assistance to help it into a permanent home. But opening day there is still at least 18 months away.

Meanwhile, the museum fills up storage spaces and rents new ones — and just about everyone involved with MONA finds room at home for an overflow sign or two.

The collecting goes on because it has to, because Los Angeles sheds its past like snakeskin.

Want to know how long someone's lived here? Play a game of "Do you remember:"

Tail 'o the Pup? Driving by the Ambassador? Grauman's dragons?

"We consider the dragon sign an icon of Los Angeles," Lynxwiler said. "And yet we basically had to snatch it out of the hands of a Dumpster."