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Photos: New Photo Book Tells L.A. History's Through Its Glowing Signs

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Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles (Angel City Press) contains over 200 photos of arresting signage, bringing to mind scenes from film noir capers and old Hollywood glamor. Some of the signs are still around, like the neon that marks Hollywood dive Frolic Room. Others live on through archived photographs and the enthusiasm of Los Angeles historians like the book's author, Tom Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a himself a photographer, who told LAist he was inspired by the photos of J. Howard Mott, John Swope and Will Connell. "They certainly didn't concentrate on neon, but it was very much a part of what they did," he told LAist. "All three photographers came to Los Angeles and established their own career in L.A. And much as my father was when he came [to Los Angeles] from North Dakota in 1933, they were fascinated by neon and took tons of photos of neon just because it was new, different and wonderful, and they hadn't seen it before. They have completely different approaches and that part of the book probably interested me the most."

Zimmerman worked with J. Eric Lynxwiler, a graphic designer and author who is also board member emeritus of the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale, to put the book together. Lynxwiler is also the host of MONA's popular neon cruise, and can tell you many fascinating tales behind our city's buzzing signage.


However, Spectacular Illumination begins not with neon, but with incandescent lighting, which preceded neon yet is no less enchanting. Lynxwiler explained that an incandescent bulb is a simply household lightbulb that one would screw into a socket. When dozens of them are screwed into a massive sign, the result is dazzling. "Neon is essentially a noble gas trapped in a glass tube. You electrify it and it creates a light with a color. You can add different phosphors... and different colored glass to create a multitude of colors. With the lightbulb, you could take a glass lightbulb and paint it or dip it to give that bulb a color," Lynxwiler said.

Though many of these photos are in black and white, Lynxwiler said that a bulb that appears quite bright in a photo would indicate a white or yellow color, while a dimmer looking bulb would indicate that it had been blue or red. In one photo that shows a frothy mug of beer, one can just make out the slight difference in color between the ale, which was probably a yellowish color, and the foam, which was most likely white.

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Forty years after the incandescent bulb dominated the streets, neon took over. And 40 years after that, Lynxwiler said backlit plastic became the popular choice for advertising and signage. It lacks the aesthetic of a good neon sign, but it's cheaper. The book moves from the early incandescent lighting to the neon of downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, the Miracle Mile and other parts of the city.

Both men have their favorite photos within Spectacular Illumination. Lynxwiler loves the the photos of Broadway, a street he refers to as the "backbone of downtown Los Angeles." There is a photo from 1916 that shows the Pantages aglow (not to be confused with the Hollywood Pantages, of course). If you look carefully, you can see a screen hanging form the side of a dentist's office, and a crowd of people gathered across the street. The photo, Lynxwiler explained, was taken during an outdoor film screening, not so unlike the ones we enjoy today. Another photo he enjoys is the old Tam O'Shanter's signage as as well as a little Manning's Coffee Shop sign located on Figueroa in Highland Park. That particular sign was restored in 2012, and though Manning's is long gone, it sits nicely atop an El Salvadorian restaurant called Las Cazuelas. According to Lynxwiler, the sign doesn't always get turned on at night, but it is fully functional.

In modern times, he enjoys the neon baker at Canter's, the twin rooftop signs of the Rosslyn in downtown L.A., and a neon Buddha in Chinatown that he said dates back to the late '30s. Zimmerman likes the Mel's Drive-In sign in Hollywood and the sign found at Helms Bakery in Culver City.

But of all the signs of past and present, Zimmerman's own heart belongs to the face that once illuminated the facade of the Earl Carroll Theater in Hollywood. It was a portrait of Beryl Wallace, who landed a gig as a showgirl in Vanities at the Earl Carroll Theatre in New York when she was just 15, which Zimmerman said was not uncommon at the time. The job allowed her to support her family, something few teens can boast. Wallace and Carroll would eventually form a relationship, and in 1938, the pair would open their Hollywood theater on Sunset Blvd., near Vine.

According to Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen:

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Carroll wanted to outdo Broadway by building the most modern theater in the country. It has the first double revolving stages, 90 feet in circumference. For a montage effect, there is also a floating stage. It is the first theater with fluorescent illumination on the ceiling. Reservations are mandatory. The main dining auditorium seats 1,000. The parking lot alone is an acre and a half. A lifetime cover charge of $1,000 allows patrons the privilege of a private, patent leather-padded room. At the entry, patrons pass under signage which proclaims: "THROUGH THESE PORTALS PASS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRLS IN THE WORLD." The show, Broadway to Hollywood, stars 60 beautiful and talented showgirls, headed by Beryl.

Wallace and Carroll were both killed in a plane crash in 1948 while headed from L.A. to New York. They are interred together at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale. A recreation of the Wallace's neon portrait can now be found at Universal's CityWalk.

"It's not only one of the greatest neon signs ever created anywhere, but the person who was displayed on the sign was an amazing individual," Zimmerman said.

A photo that piqued my own interest was the brightly lit Warner Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard (now the Hollywood Pacific Theatre) advertising the film Confessions of a Nazi Spy. It's certainly jarring to see a swastika flying over an American street, even if the intention was to condemn Nazism. The 1939 film starred actor Edward G. Robinson and was produced by Warner Brothers. The film was somewhat based on the writings of FBI agent Leon G. Turrou (played by Robinson), and was not necessarily a box office hit. But it was controversial, and was banned in several foreign countries including Germany and Japan. According to Zimmerman, this film was the anti-Nazi movie produced in the U.S.


Zimmerman said that if you ask some people, they'll tell you the first neon sign in the nation was one that shone in Los Angeles, but that isn't true. Earl C. Anthony, an L.A. businessman who Zimmerman calls a "Los Angeles booster," had apparently claimed to have erected the first neon sign in the country outside of his Packard auto showroom. The story was that Anthony was captivated by neon on a trip to Paris in 1923 and decided to get such a sign for himself. In realty, Zimmerman said that Anthony did go to France and did order neon signs, but they did not arrive until much later. His Packard sign may have indeed been the first neon sign in Los Angeles, but it wasn't around until 1925 and by that point, there were already neon signs in San Francisco and New York City. Zimmerman said that Anthony also claimed that his neon sign stopped traffic, though Dydia Delyser, a professor of geography at Cal State Fullerton and a board member at MONA, could find no such article in any of the local publications at the time about this supposed frenzy. In one of his previous books, Paradise Promoted, Zimmerman explored how Los Angeles was marketed to the American people to become the beast it is today.

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"It was an agricultural county seat," he said. "There was no reason in the world for this to be a major city. No port, no river, nothing. Just climate, and a Chamber of Commerce that was willing and able to sell it all over the country, and one of those people was Anthony, so it makes perfect sense that he made up a story about bringing one of the first neon signs... it fits in with the persona of these boosters."


Still, Zimmerman writes in Spectacular Illumination that Los Angeles ended up honestly earning its "uncontested reputation as the City of Neon Light."

It wasn't just because of those neon-soaked streets of hardboiled novels and film noir movies. Long before advertisers were recognizing the power of the lighted word, Los Angeles was experiencing exponential expansion. The selling and reselling the plots of land was its hallmark. All this growth was served by the ever-expanding Pacific Electric system that extended new lines far beyond established communities. Developed followed the tracks. This tremendous growth made Los Angeles the home of the extended commercial strip: mile after mile of shops, drugstores, markets, offices, nightclubs, theaters, bars, and restaurants, and each business demanded a vivid sign to identify it.

Zimmerman's next project is a book titled The Queen of Technicolor: Maria Montez that chronicles the life of actress Maria Montez.

Spectacular Illumination will be released on September 1. You can pre-order it via Angel City Press for $35 here. Or, you can go to head to Skylight Books in Los Feliz on September 1 at 7:30 p.m., or Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on September 12 at 7 p.m. to get a copy from Zimmerman and Lynxwiler themselves.