Are neon signs just soulless advertisements, or do they deserve recognition as undervalued works of art? The advocates at the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) firmly advocate for the latter. Established in 1981 by neon sculpture artist Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins, MONA stands as a testament to the mesmerizing beauty of neon signs.
The advent of the 20th century brought mechanization and urban migration. As electricity illuminated city grids, the urban landscapes came alive with vibrant colors and lights, injecting even more life into the bustling city spaces. The golden era of neon signs thrived from the 1930s to the post-World War II period.
Lakich, born in 1944, fondly reminisces about her early road trips during the 1940s and 1950s, where neon signs ignited her young imagination. “Driving at night was a delight,” she recalled. “The darkness would come alive with brightly colored images of cowboys twirling lassos atop rearing palominos, sinuous Indians shooting bows and arrows, or huge trucks in the sky with their wheels of light spinning.”
The Brown Derby: A Hollywood Icon
The legendary Brown Derby, which opened its doors on Valentine’s Day in 1929, quickly became a hot spot for celebrities in Hollywood. Its massive neon sign, perched atop the restaurant’s scaffold, was an iconic sight during the 1930s.
Neon Diver at Virginia Court Motel: A Rooftop Gem
Gracing the rooftop of MONA is the neon diver from the Virginia Court Motel. As interest in neon signs is reignited, these handcrafted gems have garnered renewed appreciation amid the sea of bland LED and electronic billboards.
Holiday Bowl: A Historical Crossroads
Founded in 1958 by Japanese Americans, the Holiday Bowl was a popular bowling alley that served people of all races, breaking barriers during a time of racial segregation. Its neon sign was a vibrant symbol of inclusivity.
Pep Boys: Iconic Representation
The Pep Boys sign featuring Manny, Mo, and Jack was created in the 1970s. Although mass production somewhat tarnished the neon sign era, this representation of the three men became an iconic fixture.
Winchell’s Donuts: A Nostalgic Route 66 Connection
The Winchell’s Donuts sign brought a taste of Route 66 to life. Displayed above Foothill’s Winchell’s Donut House in Upland, California, until 2004, this enormous sign evokes nostalgia and memories of a bygone era.
Hofbrau Animated Bartender: A Delightful Animation
One of the most complex animated signs at MONA is the Hofbrau animated bartender from Oakland. This double-sided sign showcases a bartender in action, pulling taps, filling beer glasses, and even offering a smile.
Chris’ n Pitts and Bar-B-Q: Preserving a Flashing Memory
Saved from restaurant #8 in the San Fernando Valley, the Chris’ n Pitts and Bar-B-Q sign boasts flickering bulbs, representing a distinctive era of neon craftsmanship. Although the flashing pole now resides at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, the sign’s memory endures.
Conclusion: Neon Signs – Art Worth Celebrating
The Museum of Neon Art is a testament to the artistry and craftsmanship that went into creating neon signs. These luminous creations not only served as advertisements but also enriched the urban landscapes, evoking emotions and memories for generations. As interest in neon signs rekindles, the MONA stands as a guardian of this unique form of art, preserving its magic and inspiring future generations to appreciate the beauty of neon in all its glory.