Start the Presses: Let there be neon

Classic neon signage from Glendale's La Fonda dancers, from the collection of the Museum of Neon Art.   Credit: Courtesy Museum of Neon Art
Classic neon signage from Glendale’s La Fonda dancers, from the collection of the Museum of Neon Art.
Credit: Courtesy Museum of Neon Art

About five years ago, a Burbank friend of mine dragged me out the house one night for an esoteric piece of only-in-Los-Angeles weirdness called the “Neon Cruise.”

We shambled to the top a rickety double-decker bus, insulated against the fall cold by a flask of Bushmills and some blankets and listened to a tall, energetic and deeply funny man describe the histories of the gas-filled, glass-tube signs in downtown Los Angeles and a half-dozen other neighborhoods.

It was a blast, truly, and I’ve often wondered why I haven’t been back. But life is circular, and regardless of where you go, things just tend to come back around.

That very tour guide, Eric Lynxwiler, lives in my building downtown. He is a former board member for the Museum of Neon Art, which is slated to open in its new digs in Glendale in the next 18 months or so. He’s been involved with the group for 14 years, and though “former” is in his official title, his deep passion and involvement seem to make it a bit of misnomer.

On Thursday I met with Lynxwiler, MONA Director Kim Koga and Adriene Biondo, a current member of the board, at Lynxwiler’s place. It was a rough commute for me, all 200 feet of it.

Lynxwiler’s home, as you might imagine, is filled with all manner of neon wonderment, not including an old shed of his grandmother’s filled to the groaning point with stuff he can’t fit inside the loft. Nearly all of it has been displayed at MONA at some point.

Since being founded in 1981, the museum has had several homes, mostly in downtown Los Angeles, and has had to close up shop on several occasions due to moves. It shuttered its most recent home on Fourth and Main streets in June 2011 in preparation for its move to Brand Boulevard. The transition was supposed to take a year.

Then Gov. Jerry Brown won his fight to dismantle redevelopment agencies statewide — the very Glendale institution that promised much of the funding for the construction of the museum was gone. Everything stopped.

After some back-and-forth — too procedural and dull to recount in this space — the City Council approved the $1.6-million contract in February, setting the stage for a groundbreaking in the fall.

“With a neon shovel,” Koga, who’s been the museum’s director since 1998, quipped.

“Everything we do, we do with flair,” Lynxwiler said with a grin.

Yes indeed. MONA is a boon for the Jewel City, and a testament to the city officials that sought them out and lured them here. Given their history of downtown locations, Koga said Glendale wasn’t really on their radar.

“But it’s a wonderful fit,” she said. “Glendale city officials have been wonderful to work with. They really get it.”

Koga said there was a fair amount of anxiety after the collapse of the redevelopment agency, given that MONA had closed the doors on its old home. Not having a physical space makes MONA a virtual museum, a wispy dream of illuminated art and signage instead of an industrial reality.

But more than that, it keeps donors and donations away, somewhat of a problem for any nonprofit. Lynxwiler said a sign went by the wayside after a potential donor – who owns a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley – drove by recently and saw what looked like an abandoned building.

“We don’t look real,” he said.

The approval of the contract has alleviated that anxiety, but replaced it with a bit of impatience. Well, perhaps not for MONA’s champions, but for me. I’m very much looking forward to its opening, and wish it the best of success.

And hurry up, wouldya?

This piece originally appeared in the Glendale News-Press and Burbank Leader.

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