Two people stood side-by-side in a museum gallery, necks craned upward at a 3-foot-high, neon-lit martini glass.
I stood a respectable 4 feet behind them, far enough not to come off as stalkerish to these people of a certain age, but close enough to eavesdrop on their animated conversation. Shamefully, this is what I occasionally do when I’m on the clock and pounding the travel beat.
Man: “See that cocktail glass on top?”
Woman: “Oh, yes. Beautiful.”
Man: “Isn’t that marvelous? That reminds me when I was in San Francisco during the war. My buddies and I were on leave and we went into this alleyway and saw just a neon cocktail glass like that, but no name, or nothing, on the door. We opened the door. We looked in. We said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ ”
Woman: “Really bad news?”
Man: “Oh, you wouldn’t believe.”
It was at this point that I politely interposed myself. These visitors to the Museum of Neon Art, the only conventional museum in the world “devoted exclusively to art in electric media,” really seemed taken with the array of neon signs flashing and glowing and occasionally moving in the dimly lit space. In fact, it seemed almost every piece on display, everything from salvaged roadside motel marquees to elaborate kinetic signs on service stations, led to passionate reveries of time past and memories rekindled.
“That’s totally what neon does to you,” said Carole Koenig of Los Angeles, roaming the galleries one recent Saturday with friend Allan Shatkin, he of the martini-glass anecdote. “It welcomes you in. It beckons. You can’t resist it. The designs are so amazing. Every single one of them has meaning attached to them.”
To prove her thesis, Koenig paused before several framed photographs of glowing motel signs and launched into a Proustian childhood memory from a trip from Los Angeles to Northern California, with a stop at a roadside motel somewhere near Bakersfield.
“We saw a neon sign with a chicken crossing the road, and we were so tired my father decided we had to stop,” she said. “It was called the Chicken Inn. It was the biggest dump in the world. We sat on the bed, and the bed fell down. You turned on the faucet, and the faucet broke off. There was just a piece of cardboard separating my sister and my room and our parents’ room. That was it. I remember my father saying, ‘Good night, kids. Close the cardboard now.’ ”
The next day, on the way out, my dad said to the clerk, ‘We’re paying now.’ The clerk asks him, ‘How was your stay, sir?’ My father said, ‘This is the Chicken Inn, right? Well, we’re Chicken Out real fast.’ ”
To neon aficionados, the flashy signs and often elaborate figurative representations, such as the becapped female bather in mid-swan dive that graces the MONA roof, are more than just a trigger for baby-boomer nostalgia. No, they consider it a legitimate, if undervalued, art form. Its origins at the turn of the 20th century may have been first scientific – Hey, what would happen if we ran this neon gas through a test tube and applied electricity? – then employed for commercial purposes to draw the eye of people cruising by in automobiles, but at some point beyond neon’s consumer heyday in the 1960s it gained an appreciation by pop-art aesthetes.
This resurgence of interest in neon signs by the art world comes at the same time that the old-school signs have largely been subsumed by large, square and bland LED signs and electric billboards that, to many, is an ocular assault more than an inviting blaze of eye-popping color.
Let’s face it, the expressed purpose of both neon signs of old and the current incarnation of lit advertising is to sell, sell, sell. But once the business attached to the neon image is long gone, you can appreciate the image outside its original context. A Los Angeles business named “Clayton Plumbers” may be long gone, but people stop and gawk at the 30-foot sign in MONA’s courtyard. Electric blue drops lead down to a splat of white, and the words inside each of the drops proclaim:
To Eric Evavold, the museum’s vice president, neon is a valued form of folk art. It’s Americana writ large and lit brightly. He is not surprised by the renewed interest in neon. (In addition to the Los Angeles museum, which has been open since 1981 in various locations, there is a “boneyard” of erstwhile huge casino and hotel neon signs preserved in a large lot in downtown Las Vegas. In Miami, an interactive, immersible “Motelscape” literally bathes visitors in neon. Jay-Z even name-checks New York neon artist Dan Flavin in the video for “Onto the Next One.” )
“It’s one of the cultural threads that makes up the American experience,” he said. “It pulls us together. It’s how we lit Route 66 and our highways. ‘EAT!’ You had that one word flashing. Neon was a way to get people out.
“People take it personally. For me, it’s like that. My father used to drive me around town. He owned a business at the produce mart (in downtown L.A.) Just seeing this lore and this quality at night affected me. When the sun finally set, pop, there was that color lighting up the night sky. It didn’t seem so dark anymore.”
Los Angeles, known for its glitz, seems a logical choice for a museum dedicated to neon. Evavold said some wonder why Times Square in New York or the Las Vegas strip didn’t get the nod. His answer is simple. The first neon sign in the United States illuminated a Packard car dealership in downtown L.A. in 1923. It was a simple design, the word Packard in cursive script, but it caused a sensation.
“The (Packard) owner, Earl C. Anthony, had gone to a style show in Paris where neon was displayed and brought it here,” Evavold said. “A lot of people have the misconception that neon started on Broadway in New York City. It actually started right off Broadway in L.A.”
Appreciators of neon art can be serious about the form – works by Flavin and others sell for major coin, high six figures – but many also will admit their interest runs toward nostalgia and a certain kitsch value.
“There’s a retro classy element to it, I think,” said Koenig, the “Chicken Inn” visitor. “It decorates the night sky, when you think about it. Remember driving into Vegas at night? There’s nothing, nothing, and then there’s that glow that almost makes it seem like you’ve arrived on Mars.
“It’s the animation factor, too. These things most often flash and go off and move. It’s so much more individual. Think about it. You’ve got letters and a specific message. It’s not like the illuminated billboards we have now. … It doesn’t hit you over the head with overt selling like today’s billboards. I mean, when you see a neon cocktail glass, you’ve got to go in and have a cocktail, no matter what. You have to.”
“Except,” her friend Shatkin interjected, “when there’s no name on it and it’s in an alley.”
Museum of Neon Art
Where: 216 South Brand Blvd., Glendale
Hours: Noon to 7 p.m Fridays and Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Cost: $8 general, $5 students and seniors, free for ages 12 and under
More information: www.new-neonmona.org