MONA of Glendale leads a tour of LA’s neon cityscape | Arts and events

NOTeon has long played an important role in painting Los Angeles’ image as a bustling city with a thriving nightlife. As the sun sets over the Pacific, iconic signs such as Mel’s Drive-in and Hollywood and Vine illuminate the city with a neon glow that catches the eye and captures the imagination.

For the past three decades, the Museum of Neon Art has hosted neon-focused tours across LA County. On May 14, the museum kicked off its new season of Neon Cruises which invites the public atop a double-decker bus for an open-air nighttime excursion from downtown to Hollywood and back. Tours are led by author Eric Lynxwiler and will continue through Sunday, September 18.

“I love sharing Los Angeles with people,” Lynxwiler said. “I can’t tell you how much I love this city. I have lived here all my life. … I can’t believe I’ve been doing (the tours) for all these years, but I wouldn’t change that. Part of me is a ham, part of me is a teacher, and it’s really a lot of fun.

The live narrated tour departs from downtown Los Angeles and highlights the historical and aesthetic dimensions of neon while placing them firmly within the context of 20th century Los Angeles cultural history. From the classic movie marquees of the Downtown Theater District and the glowing pagodas of Chinatown to the twinkling lights of Hollywood, audiences will see both innovative electric commercials as well as exceptional examples of contemporary art on this award-winning tour .

Part history tour, part comedy, and entirely a love letter to Los Angeles, this tour is designed for locals who may have missed parts of the city’s history hidden in plain sight, as well as tourists who want an offbeat insider’s look at what makes the area shine.

“I show people a Los Angeles they didn’t know existed,” Lynxwiler said. “A lot of people just don’t explore beyond their backyards, and they don’t see how many little Los Angelesans there are in this world. Dorothy Parker said Los Angeles was 97 neighborhoods looking for a city, and I’m going to celebrate all of those 97 neighborhoods if possible.

Although the spirit and voluminous knowledge of the town of Lynxwiler remains constant, he has had to adapt the tour itinerary over the years as the signage in the town continues to change. There were several nights where he drove a tour and started sneaking in a neon sign only to turn the corner and find that she was gone.

In one instance, Lynxwiler led a tour that saw a sign removed in front of the audience. He stopped the bus and asked for an intermission on the tour so he could find out why the sign, which read “Jesus Saves” at the back of the United Artists Theater, was being removed and how he could save it. He was never seen again.

“The city is changing around us all the time,” Lynxwiler said. “It’s hard to imagine Los Angeles without neon lights, just as it’s hard to imagine Los Angeles without palm trees and automobiles. The city of LA grew with cars in the heyday of neon jazz America. Everything happened at exactly the same time. As Los Angeles grew in skyscrapers, we grew up in the age of automobiles, neon lights, and entertainment.

In the 1920s, Downtown LA was booming with movie theaters featuring huge neon marquees. Businesses across the county used neon signs to attract visitors from personal cars and Red Car rail lines. Neon becomes a sign of modernity.

“Neon was not born in darkness,” Lynxwiler explained. “We used to live in the world of incandescent lamps, but suddenly these incandescent lamps became long strings of neon tubes that could be bent into any shape imaginable. Anything you imagined could become a neon sign. neon. It could be a beer flowing or an eagle flapping its wings. … The city of Los Angeles was suddenly given color, bustling motion, and multi-story signs.

Even after World War II saw the city’s neon lights go dark for fear of attack, LA remained home to a plethora of historic signs and some of the tallest neon signs in the state.

“There was a long-standing myth that Los Angeles had the first neon sign in the United States and that it would stop traffic for blocks and blocks,” said MONA’s executive director, Corrie Siegel. “It was refuted a few years ago by our board secretary, Dydia DeLyser, and her partner, Paul Greenstein, but there’s still that tradition and sparkle about neon. … It speaks to how LA both represents itself and is represented to the outside world.

Neon signage art and imagery has become an integral part of community identities across Los Angeles, including Chinatown, an area born out of the destruction of Los Angeles’ organic descent community of native Americans. Chinese origin moved to make way for Union Station. In Chinatown, neon has become a way for the new generation of American-born Chinese residents to distinguish themselves from their mothers and fathers and to visually express their presence in the community.

“It shows how something can be so real and so grounded in identity, but can also be all about the spectacular,” Siegel said. “Los Angeles is a place that is deeply culturally ingrained and has so many diverse stories to tell.

“There’s this bad rap about LA having no history and the reason we can’t talk about history is because nothing exists. But the signage is proof that there’s this continuation from the 1920s of this really rich story that’s not just this textbook story, but about the communities of Los Angeles, what they’ve been through, why these different areas are so dynamic, always-changing and dynamic, and why they must be preserved.

Towards the end of the 20th century, cities across the United States began banning neon signs because many of them had not been well maintained and were seen as symbols of decline. In recent decades, however, Los Angeles has experienced a neon renaissance following initiatives such as “Bring Back Broadway” which revived old neon signs.

“When I started this tour, I could walk down Broadway completely in the dark and people would say, ‘How disappointing to do a neon tour and not see any working neon lights,'” Lynxwiler described. “Now, walking down Broadway, there are restored theater marquees and giant vertical billboards that have been re-lit. … Broadway looks fantastic to me. Little Tokyo is shining again. Hollywood is on fire.”

“We are seeing this movement across much of the United States, this recognition that neon is historic and that neon is something that cities want as part of revitalization. Not only is it important to save neon; it is important to save the legacies, businesses and communities that have been served by these companies. Each neon sign is bent by hand, by a skilled craftsman. It always comes back to this story of a person, of a people.

Traveling through the illuminated city atop a double-decker bus, Lynxwiler hopes audiences can witness LA’s neon transformation for themselves and see the city from a new perspective as they pass the billboards at eye-level.

“It’s hard for me to explain what it’s like when your perspective of Los Angeles changes, and I’m not just talking about a change in perspective from being on the ground floor of a sidewalk to being on the top of a double-decker bus,” says Lynxwiler. “It is also a change of mentality. Suddenly you see Los Angeles in a new way, in a new light and take notes on where to eat, where to drink, where to go and celebrate, where to explore.

With the launch of its new Neon Cruises season, MONA seeks to transform the way Angelenos and tourists alike understand and celebrate the city, especially after two years of closures and restricted travel.

“It’s so nice to get on a bus and realize that you can travel to your own city and those experiences will make you feel like you know it so much better and have that renewed love for this place that you most people only know a small piece,” Siegel said. “It’s a great way to come back and re-appreciate all that we have in this wonderful county.”

neon cruises

WHERE: Downtown location disclosed after booking confirmation

WHEN: 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. some days until Sunday, September 18

COST: $65; $55 for MONA members


About Walter J. Leslie

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