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Tour Los Angeles during its ‘Golden Age of Neon’

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A new book features hundreds of vintage photos of LA’s best neon signs

The 1930 premiere of Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels, one of the most elaborate premieres in Hollywood history.
Images from Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles, 1925-1960 by Tom Zimmerman with J. Eric Lynxwiler

There once was a time when Los Angeles was arguably the neon capital of the world, with glowing signs on buildings and rooftops across the city. Though some of the coolest signs live on at such places as the Museum of Neon Art, which just restored and relit a sign from one of the Brown Derby’s locations, most of them are no more.

A new book titled Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles, 1925–1960 (and first spotted by L.A. Taco) attempts to capture and share that bygone “Golden Age of Neon” with a spread of more than 200 photos of marquees and streets lit up with glowing signage.

Written by historian and photographer Tom Zimmerman with design by J. Eric Lynxwiler, a neon historian and graphic designer, the book showcases hundreds of images from photographers J. Howard Mott, John Swope, and Will Connell—all of whom were known for photographing neon—and from commercial photography houses of the time.

The Belmont Theatre on East Second Street in Long Beach, 1961. The Art Deco theater closed in 1977.

More than just a luminous picture book, Spectacular Illumination also tells the story of neon in Los Angeles, a history that “mixed the impact of Hollywood and great design, two elements that are so important to the history of Los Angeles,” says Zimmerman.

While it’s true that neon signs can be found across the nation, Zimmerman says LA’s relationship with neon is unique because of “the glorious Hollywood angle, the number of signs on endless commercial streets, and Vine Street as ‘neon central.’”

Gin Ling Way in Chinatown.

There was a time in filmmaking when “it seemed like every movie defined Hollywood with neon signs in the scene,” Zimmerman says.

Neon signs fell out of fashion in the early 1960s, says Zimmerman, when cheaper, more reliable plastic signs gained popularity. Looking at the photos of streets lit up with the glow of dozens of the brightly lit signs, it’s hard not to yearn for the heyday of neon.

Spectacular Illumination is available from Angel City Press.

Hollywood Boulevard, 1946.
A Department of Water and Power photo shows “Light on Parade” festivities that stretched from City Hall at the north end to Olympic Boulevard at the south. The event celebrated the arrival of electrical power from the Hoover Dam. More than one million people came Downtown for the spectacle. The photo shows Broadway, which was nicknamed “The Canyon of Lights” for the event.