These Photos Will Transport You to a Neon-Soaked 1930s Hollywood

If Google Street View existed in the Art Deco era, Hollywood Boulevard would have looked like this
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Let’s go on a ride through 1930s Los Angeles as depicted in the new book Spectacular Illuminations. Iconic L.A. neon, like the pagodas of Chinatown, is rendered in glorious Kodachrome, but the book also gives love to the light shows that elevated hamburger stands and gas stations to fine art. Here, take a crawl down vintage Hollywood Boulevard to see some of the era’s most glorious neon works. We’ll start at Sunset and Vine and work our way west.


Sunset and Vine

Tom Breneman hosted a morning talk show from his restaurant, which is now part of a Bed, Bath & Beyond store

Photograph courtesy Spectacular Illumination

Tom Breneman hosted a morning talk show from his restaurant, which is now part of a Bed, Bath & Beyond store.


Selma and Vine

Looking north on Vine Street at Selma. The Brown Derby address is now a Trader Joe's

Photograph from Blackstock Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Photographer Tom Zimmerman and J. Eric Lynxwiler have pulled together more than 200 vintage images of neon signs captured in their natural habitat. The art form is almost extinct. A few remain in the wild (the neon lights are bright on Broadway) while others, like Clayton Plumbers, the Chinese theater dragon, and the Hollywood Brown Derby, live in captivity at the Museum of Neon Art. The Brown Derby address is now a Trader Joe’s.


Hollywood and Vine

Credit_Spectacular Illumination_02

Photograph courtesy Spectacular Illumination

Zimmerman was planning to exhibit his images of L.A. streets soaked in rain and neon at the museum when he came across a trove of forgotten photos at the California State Library. The J. Howard Mott collection contained similar shots captured decades earlier and filed away after the Mott died in 1937. Many are reproduced here as double-page spreads, almost large enough to mount on your dashboard and pretend you are driving through this lost wonderland.


Hollywood and Vine

A rainy night at the Pantages Theater

Photograph courtesy Spectacular Illumination

It was a rainy night at the Pantages Theater.


Hollywood and Vine

The mayor and his wife cruise west on Hollywood Boulevard past the Pantages theater and the Frolic Room

Photograph by Lucille Stewart Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Mayor Fletcher Bowron and his wife cruise west on Hollywood Boulevard past the Pantages theater and the Frolic Room That pesky LED lighting (and the 21st century in general) has been bad news for neon signs, but hey, Clifton’s, the Tam o’ Shanter, and the Egyptian theater lost theirs only to have them return decades later.


Hollywood and Vine

The Avalon club on Vine Street was once a playhouse called the El Capitan

Photograph courtesy Spectacular Illumination

The Avalon club on Vine Street was once a playhouse called the El Capitan.


Hollywood and Vine

The northwest corner of Hollywood and Vine was home to the swanky restaurant Sardi's, designed by architect Rudolph Schindler.

Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

The northwest corner of Hollywood and Vine was home to the swanky restaurant Sardi’s, designed by architect Rudolph Schindler.


Hollywood and Wilcox

Looking east down Hollywood from Wilcox in 1946 complete with streetcar tracks and overheard power lines.

Photograph from the Tom Zimmerman Collection

Looking east down Hollywood from Wilcox in 1946, you could see the streetcar tracks and overheard power lines. I love the book’s deep dig into the 19th century origins of the art of neon, explaining how physicists learned to trap gas in airtight tubes. The authors make colorful references to the colored gas in the literature, film, music, and architecture of L.A. that popularized the art form around the world.


Hollywood and Highland

This glorious 1936 theater marquee is on Hollywood Boulevard between McCadden and Highland. It's now the Guinness Museum.

Photograph by Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

This glorious 1936 theater marquee is on Hollywood Boulevard between McCadden and Highland. It’s now the Guinness World Record Museum.


Hollywood and Highland

From 1902 to 1956, this rambling, mission-style hotel occupied the corner of Hollywood and Highland where The Gap is located today.

Photograph by Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

From 1902 to 1956, this rambling, mission-style hotel occupied the corner of Hollywood and Highland where The Gap is located today.


Hollywood and Orange

The Otto K. Oleson Company, whose motto was "Spectacular Illumination," provided the lighting for the 1930 premiere of Hell's Angels at the Chinese Theater

Photograph from Tom Zimmerman Collection

The Otto K. Oleson Company, whose motto was “Spectacular Illumination,” provided the lighting for the 1930 premiere of Hell’s Angels at the Chinese Theater.

Shadow the book as it meanders along Wilshire, Sunset, and Hollywood Boulevards, then set a course for the Museum of Neon Art where you can hobnob with the actual giant hat sign from the Brown Derby, now on display as part of their “Hats Off to Hollywood” exhibit. The glorious original, in full color and three dimensions, is so special it might just have magic time machine powers. You should go get close to it and see if it transports you to 1930s Hollywood.

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