Neon Vancouver jungle glows with nostalgia and conflict

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      The Museum of Vancouver is buzzing. Literally. It’s a sound that harks back to a time when Vancouver’s streets were filled with the thrumming of neon signs hawking everything from car repairs to beer. The spirit of the 1950s and ’60s is back, and it’s lighting up the MOV in Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver, an exhibit that explores the heyday of the city’s love-hate affair with neon.

      The show features 22 vintage neon signs, alongside photographs by Walter Griba of Vancouver’s streets in the 1960s. Visitors are greeted first by the old shimmering blue and red Drake Hotel marquee, before entering a room filled with gems such as the Rexall Drugs owl mascot that used to hover above 41st and Granville; the jaunty pink and green neon banner of S. Bowell & Sons Funeral Directors; and the newly acquired Blue Eagle Cafe signage that until recently graced the 100-block of East Hastings.

      The exhibit also stretches into the History Galleries, where music groupies can revisit The Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, whose neon beacon the band 54-40 took on the road before donating it to the museum in 2007. While visitors to the exhibit will no doubt find the glowing signs charming, they’ll also learn that city residents didn’t always feel that way. In addition to featuring the signs, the museum also documents what Joan Seidl, director of collections and exhibitions, calls the “visual-purity crusade” that sought to dampen the enthusiasm for the eye-catching lighting.

      “There was a feeling [in the 1960s and ’70s] that neon was one highly visible part of a kind of visual mess that was overtaking Vancouver,” Seidl explains, in a phone call with the Straight. “There was real interest in trying to make Vancouver look modern and also to show off its natural surroundings.”

      Quotes displayed on the wall of the exhibit show just how vociferous the anti-neon movement was. Take Tom Ardies, in a 1966 Vancouver Sun column titled “Let’s Wake Up From Our Neon Nightmare”: “We’re being led by the nose into a hideous jungle of signs. They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous. They’re desecrating our buildings, cluttering our streets, and—this is the final indignity—blocking our view of some of the greatest scenery in the world.” And here’s Eric Nicol in 1962, calling for the restriction of neon to one downtown strip, in a Province piece called “Cutting Back the Jungle”: “Ideally every city should have its one Piccadilly Circus, a glorious, garish free-for-all of illuminated signs that will be a flame for the moth-swarm of tourists, toughs and tarts.”

      By 1974, the critics had managed to convince city hall to enact a number of bylaws that limited the use of neon, ensuring a stop to the proliferation of particularly eye-catching signs. “There were so many constraints,” observes Seidl. “There were very stringent calculations to do about how much of your façade the sign was taking up. So it had to be a certain percentage, up, down, sideways. There was also a stipulation that animated signs, moving signs, or over-large signs were not allowed under normal circumstances. You could pretty much slap your name up there but you couldn’t go wild with jazzy little animated this-or-that figures. Swinging girls? Never,” she asserts, referring to the delightful sign that hung above Helen’s Children’s Wear at 4142 East Hastings from 1957 to 2007. (The sign was ultimately purchased and refurbished by the City of Burnaby, which moved it a few blocks east to mark the Burnaby Heights shopping district.)

      While the bylaws surrounding neon have been relaxed in recent years, with the city now actively encouraging it along Granville Street’s Theatre Row and Chinatown, advances in lighting technology and signage have all but condemned it to the scrap heap. Unlike modern LED lighting, neon requires skilled craftspeople to create it—designers, patternmakers, electricians, and, most importantly, tube benders, who literally bend tubes of glass by hand using a variety of techniques to achieve the finished product.

      “The industry’s basically dead,” admits Rob Gillette of Steelhead Signs in Langley, who helped restore many of the signs in the MOV exhibit, speaking by phone with the Straight from his workshop. “I’m like the last wholesale tube bender around. I’m just hanging on by my fingernails here. The LEDs, when they came out, they took away 60 to 70 percent of my market and devastated the industry.”

      As far as Seidl is concerned, LED is neon’s very inferior—though more energy-efficient—cousin. “The current argument is, can LED do what neon did?” notes Seidl. “Some people try to argue that you can get equivalent light effects. I haven’t seen it happen yet. The neon glows. It has a much deeper glow and you get much more brilliance in the colours. LED always, to me, seems washed out next to neon.”

      What she hopes visitors will take from the exhibit is a new perspective on both the past and the present. “I always want people to imagine Vancouver in the past and think about what it was actually like to live in the past,” she explains. “We’re all looking at the same sign, but we see it one way, and those people in 1961 saw it another way. The people in 1950, when it was new, saw it yet a third way.” With a laugh, she adds: “One day we’ll be doing exhibits of backlit plastic signs, which now we think are just scuzzy, right? I’m sure we will.”

      Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver runs at the Museum of Vancouver from October 13 to August 12.