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LAist Interview: Eric Lynxwiler

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Eric Lynxwiler is the Indiana Jones of Los Angeles. He braves hostile bureaucrats, crumbling building sites and dangerous junkyards to ferret out Los Angeles's lost treasures. Characterizing himself as an "urban anthropologist," Eric shares his knowledge of the city's past with those lucky enough to get a seat on one of his Museum of Neon Art’s Neon Cruises, a nighttime open-air bus tour of LA neon signs.

Eric's latest research project is the book, "Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles," with text by Kevin Roderick of LAObserved.com.

photo credit: Tim Miller

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Age and Occupation:
Age 32. Graphic Designer by trade, Urban Anthropologist by training.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life. I grew up in the South Bay: Torrance, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach. I still have many friends in the beach-y suburbs of Los Angeles, but after graduating from UCLA, I left for something more urban. I wound up in Wilshire Center and lived in the shadow of the Ambassador Hotel, just a quick trot from the HMS Bounty. A few years later I had to escape the congestion, none of my friends would visit me in Wilshire Center, so I moved to the Miracle Mile. It’s a great neighborhood for now, but I’m afraid the congestion is following me.

Why do you live in Los Angeles?
Los Angeles isn’t a choice. It’s my home.

What motivated you to participate in the Wilshire Blvd book project?

Long story. Several years back, a friend proposed we walk Wilshire, all 15.8 miles of it, from one end to the other. It would be his last hurrah before moving to Portland, Oregon and the penultimate Los Angeles achievement. Five of us made the entire trip on a weekday and it took about 9 hours or so. We began in downtown at Grand Avenue and ended our journey at the statue of Saint Monica at Ocean Avenue. The blisters and chaffing were well worth it as the experience changed my perspective of the city, and my life, forever.

By simply getting out of the car, the details of the boulevard came to life. I’d been exploring downtown LA, on foot, for years. Yet this experience stretched my boundaries and showed me that the city’s rich history wasn’t confined to its historic core. The details were stunning and quite rich.

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Of course, I shared the story of my urban hike with practically everyone, including my friends at the Los Angeles Conservancy who asked me to help with a new tour concept, Curating the City, which evolved into a one-day-only driving tour of Wilshire Boulevard. I lent a hand with researching the street’s history and architectural icons, but knew immediately that the story of Wilshire was larger than a tour pamphlet. I proposed a history book that went from the LAConservancy to the Los Angeles Times Books department. The LATimes supported the book and paired me with a writer, Kevin Roderick. Together we dug into the Wilshire tale and clung to the book as the Tribune shuttered the LATimes’ book department and a new publisher, Angel City Press, picked it up. Altogether, the book took over three years and it was well worth the time and expense. The final product is fantastic.

Where did you find the photographs and how did you get permission to reuse them?
The book's images came from all over, but the most valuable archive was from the Los Angeles Times. Since this began as an LATimes' book, Roderick and I were granted access to their huge library of historical photos. I spent over a hundred, wonderful hours digging through file after file of black and white pictures that had not been seen since they were first printed in the newspaper generations ago. There were many gems, fifty of which made it into the final book.

When the LATimes closed the doors on the book department, those photos became an issue. We had to get access to them as the book simply paled in their absence. After much negotiation and a long contract, Angel City Press received the one-time-use rights for these beautiful and amazingly rare photos to be reproduced in our Wilshire book.

University libraries and the California State library provided most of the photographs. The Gaylord Wilshire archive is at UCLA and that's where I found the only photograph of Gaylord and his wife, Mary, as well as the earliest known photo of Wilshire Boulevard from 1895. USC has a collection of early twentieth century Los Angeles photos from photographer Dick Whittington while the California State Library has the stunning Mott-Merge collection. Practically every photo of Bullock's Wilshire came from the California State Library. Although it's located far away in Sacramento, their collection is worth the trip.

Private collections became invaluable for their ephemera; matchbooks, menus, napkins, advertisements, and the ubiquitous postcards. A dozen collectors opened up their private stashes and were quite happy to share the wealth. From my own collection, we used about seventy pieces and, I admit, eBay did come in handy right up to the last minute.

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What surprised you about the project or any new insight about Wilshire Blvd.
The biggest Wilshire surprise came out of the Los Angeles Public Library. Its enormous vintage photo collections are only now getting the praise they're due as more and more of its historical images from the Security Pacific Collection as well as the valuable Herald Examiner Collection are scanned and placed on the internet. What I found in one particular photograph changed an important piece of Los Angeles cultural and culinary history as it proved to be a missing Brown Derby Restaurant. History states that there were only four Brown Derbys in the chain: the original was located at Wilshire and Alexandria Avenue with a second Wilshire location at Rodeo Drive; the third stood near the famed intersection of Hollywood and Vine; the fourth existed in Los Feliz and is the current home of the nightclub, The Derby. Yet, the Los Angeles Public Library had photographic proof that a fifth Brown Derby stood at 3927 Wilshire near Wilton Avenue.

A little research showed that the restaurant chain's owner, Herb Sonborn, opened a fancy, French dining establishment at the site and called it the High Hat. It may have been the Great Depression or the food itself, but by 1931, the business changed its name to carry the more popular Brown Derby moniker. With that alteration, it became the third Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard and may have saturated the market. By 1932, the business changed hands and the establishment became Perino's Restaurant which stayed until 1949 when it moved West to its more famed location at 4101 Wilshire.

Although I've been patting myself on the back for nearly three years over this huge discovery, it hasn't truly made an impact outside of a small group of Los Angeles historians. Some of them initially refused to accept the find and denied that there could possibly be a "lost" Brown Derby. Yet no one can disprove the photographic evidence and postcards of it. The average person may be nonplussed, but I'm ready to print it on a Tshirt; "I found the missing Brown Derby!" And I found it at the Los Angeles Public Library.

How and why did you start giving neon light tours?
So many years ago, I dragged a bunch of my friends on to one of the Museum of Neon Art's Neon Cruises. We were having a good time, but that was mostly due to the now-gone open bar policy the museum once had on the bus. There is nothing quite like riding in a convertible double-decker bus with a glass of wine in your hand. The lights glow a little brighter perhaps. Anyway, that was about the only good thing going for the tour. The woman who was guiding it had her little microphone and a script. She was horrible. She kept reading from her script because she didn't know what she was talking about. Nighttime Los Angeles was completely foreign to her and she knew nothing about signage. I had only been to MONA once before, but knew signage and urban Los Angeles very well. So well in fact, that I gave up on the woman pointing out McDonald's plastic signage and I started to give my own tour to my friends. Other passengers started to listen in and I suddenly had an audience. By the end of the tour, I had enough alcohol/courage in me to walk up to the guy in charge of the tour and tell him that I wanted to be its guide. Three months later the bus was mine; seven years later, it still is.

After I took the helm, the tour's popularity skyrocketed. We went from offering five tours a year to giving one to three per week. It absolutely boomed, but we had to cut back to keep from burning out. During the tour season of June through October, I now only give two or three tours per month.

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It's exhausting, but I love it. The Neon Cruise is not just a tour of lights, but nighttime Los Angeles. I tell people when they board that there are millions of different Los Angeleses out there; we each have our own it seems. My goal is to share a portion of my Los Angeles which means that the tour is not just neon signage, but also culture, architecture, history, current events, and the dirt. I think that sets the Neon Cruise apart from any other tours because I show off the not-so-pretty side of the city as well as the beauty. It's "my" Los Angeles and I enjoy sharing it with others.

How easy is it to be an independent scholar in Los Angeles?
Not easy at all. So many Angelinos have their own ideas of what Los Angeles is and no one can really agree on its definition. Even something as recent and as supposedly well documented as our city's twentieth century history is up for grabs, in a way. Much of what we believe about Los Angeles is preprogrammed or stereotyped, thanks to the faux reality of Hollywood imagery and armchair historians who perpetuate the incorrect but beloved myths.

In studying Los Angeles, I've found so many little, false histories that people cling to tenaciously. Trying to change these fairytales is nearly impossible since people have lived with them for so long and accept them as unquestionable fact. The "missing" fifth Brown Derby is one example; several people denied its existence until photographic proof changed their minds.

Discounting the myth that there were only four Brown Derbys was not too difficult with a photo, but some things are less tangible and often less colorful, like the tale of Wilshire Boulevard's La Parilla Restaurant. The former house is decorated with photos of the iconic Charles Chaplin and depictions of his starving Little Tramp stare from the walls at La Parilla's diners. Management states that Chaplin once owned the home, but property records show that it was not Chaplin, but Charles Chapman who purchased the property. Granted, Chaplin is a more colorful character than the man who gave his name to Orange County's Chapman University, but it's one misunderstanding that its storytellers, and La Parilla's marketers, don't want to change.

Another myth is that architect Julia Morgan designed the penthouses of Wilshire's Los Altos for William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. The colorful tale continues to be told by the building's fans although there's no evidence to support it.

Also, the Miracle Mile is much more than Art Deco; the neighborhood has a history beyond one era of architecture and it is repeatedly ignored. So many of its historic, non-Deco structures are being demolished with the excuse that they are not Art Deco and therefore have no value. Adding to the neighborhood's injuries, the truly historic buildings are being replaced with uninspired, fake-Art Deco structures which are not only muddling the architectural history of the district, but turning it into a theme park of bad design (Sorry, but I can get preachy on this topic).

Arguing aesthetics is not an easy task and trying redefine the history of a neighborhood beyond a small handful of buildings is, in the case of the Miracle Mile, next to impossible. People cling to their myths of place and history which, although they are colorful tidbits, can sometimes be proven wrong. As an independent scholar of twentieth century Los Angeles, it is a struggle to separate the legends of the city from its facts and then defend those facts against clueless marketers.

What's your favorite neon sign in LA?
That's always a difficult question. For the glitz, I can't keep my eyes off the overly animated Helms Bakery rooftop signage in Culver City. For the size of it, I adore The Broadway Hollywood at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. And for the joy of it, there's nothing like the slap-happy Buddha of the K.G. Louie Co. on Chinatown's Gin Ling Way.

If you could spell your name in lights, how would you like it to look and where would you like for your name to be located in the Los Angeles cityscape?
With a Scrabble-winning last name like Lynxwiler, I can see the lettering in a big, scripted, sweeping font from the 1950s. The Museum of Neon Art has a huge, red Sears sign in that style, but I'd rather see my name in pale blue argon. As for location, why be subtle? Put it on a rooftop in downtown.

What's your preferred mode of transportation?
My preferred mode of transport is my little truck. I could tell you I'm on the MTA every other week and that I'm a responsible, Metro-riding Angelino, but I still prefer my truck. It's not great for passengers or mileage, but it is great when I'm saving signage from a demolition site and I need to throw some big, dirty, twisted metal in back. I couldn't do that with a Prius.

Best LA-themed book?
Ask the Dust by John Fante has forever changed the way I see Los Angeles.

Share your best celebrity sighting experience.
I have stood next to Mel Torme at the Fox Westwood Theater and George Takai at the Mark Taper Forum--at the urinals. It's not a goal to pee near famous people, but there they were.

In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?
I take the La Cienega pass every time I go to Grandma's house.

What's the best place to walk in LA?
I've walked all over Los Angeles, but can't claim that there's a single pedestrian friendly place anywhere in the city. If I must, I'd say the most appealing place to walk in Los Angeles is downtown LA. It's not that it's full of conveniences, but that it's so rich with history and detail. When I give walking tours for the Los Angeles Conservancy, I always remind my group to look up at the beautiful facades in the historic core; look for ghost signs painted on the sides of buildings in order to read their past histories; peek inside shops and lobbies; and buy a horchata at Clifton's Cafeteria.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
1939. It's a magic time in world history as the Great Depression is still gripping the nation and World War II is not far away. Yet out in Los Angeles, brown fields still dot the rural-not-yet-urban landscape. Hollywood is booming and downtown Los Angeles hasn't yet lost its grandeur. If I had a time machine, I'd dance at the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove, dine at the Brown Derby, and shop at Bullock's Wilshire. That's the holy trinity of the boulevard: The Ambassador Hotel, Brown Derby, and Bullock's Wilshire.

What's your beach of choice?
Hermosa Beach. I spent about six years working at Lappert's Ice Cream on Pier Avenue. I lost a lot of summers there, but it put me through college. Hermosa Beach still holds a bit of "home" for me.

What is the "center" of LA to you?
The center of the Los Angeles is also my favorite part of town--downtown. So many people avoid it as if it were diseased. If I hear one more person tell me "the Orpheum Theater is so beautiful, too bad it's downtown," I'm gonna scream. I remain fascinated by the fact that downtown has been the heart of our city since its formation, but most Los Angelinos treat it like crap. The whole district is beautiful and completely taken for granted.

If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.
Even though I'm a Democrat, I'd go to Orange County and live in the City of Orange. It's close enough to LA that I wouldn't atrophy and it has an adorable downtown. As for the rest of Orange County, well, at least there's Disneyland. If I lived there, I could get a Tiki Room-fix more often.

Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you find it challenging to make new friends here?
I don't think it's difficult to make friends in Los Angeles, but I do think it is difficult to forge a romantic relationship here. This city seems to be hard on couples. It could be the fault of the Industry, work/commuting schedules, money issues or high city expenses, etc., but I think this town can really take its toll on a relationship. Once an Angelino garners a boy/girlfriend, I suggest they get outa town every few months to reconnect and focus on each other. This city is distracting and sometimes the best medicine is a quick weekend in Palm Springs or San Diego.
Anybody can find a friend in LA, but a soulmate? That's difficult.

What is the city's greatest secret?
Angelyne's age.

Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?
I'm never the designated driver and know the curb in front of the HMS Bounty very well. There are better drinkers in this world but I drink easily knowing I can always get a lift from a friend should I need one. By the way, the drive-thru daiquiri bars in New Orleans are awesome!

Describe your best LA dining experience.
Ciudad. I've been many times and consider it to be one of the best restaurants in town. Sure the food is good, but I've had such good times there with friends and family that every memory is a positive one. I cannot recall every dish, but their goat cheese cheesecake was shocking.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
How long does it take to get the ice off your windshield?

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
I've got family all across the United States, and nothing compares with Los Angeles. I've had family displaced by tornadoes in Kansas and Missouri, and more recently my parents were homeless for two weeks due to Katrina's affects in New Orleans and its suburbs. Some of my family members scrape ice off their windshields and shovel snow all winter. Although they make fun of me for living with the threat of earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, drive-by shootings, traffic, and riots, I'd rather live here with smoke-free interiors, the American Cinematheque, and Ciudad than live with flooding, frozen waterpipes, and Applebee's.

Did that just make me sound like a West Coast supremacist? To each his own, as they say. When the Big One hits and I'm buried waist deep in rubble, I may wish I for a Santa Fe vacation away from the trauma and trouble, but I could never leave this city for long.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
I'll be praying at the foot of Bullock's Wilshire. Not for my safety, but for the building's. That structure, its design and relevance to our city's history cannot be overestimated. There never was nor will be anything like it again. I'll pray at the cathedral of Art Deco commerce, Bullock's Wilshire.