Bridget Gleeson Travel Writer

Los Angeles, Ablaze

‘Remnants of a lost Los Angeles, city of the mind, remembered and yearned for, the neon lights of LA – celestial fires of another sort, green, gold, ruby red, electric blue…
If Paris is the City of Lights, LA is the City of Neon, possessed of a comparable (yet antithetical) beauty and capable as well, like all great cities, of giving rise in the magic of the night to hungers of body, mind and spirit.’

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                                                     – Kevin Starr, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1999

A few weeks ago, I read in the news that the world’s oldest piece of neon had been discovered right here in Los Angeles. During renovations at classic Clifton’s Cafeteria, which dates from 1931, someone busted through a dusty old partition and found a neon lamp that’s believed to have been burning for 77 years. It isn’t news to anyone that I adore old-fashioned cafes and crumbling, once-glamorous architecture – faded grandeur is sort of my thing. So when a friend invited me on the Museum of Neon Art’s ‘Neon Cruise,’ I was totally – ahem – onboard.

And what a night it was! We spent three hours zooming around downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood on an open-air, double-decker bus, drinking wine to stave off the chilly breeze, as a fantastically funny and knowledgeable guide took us past some of the city’s great neon landmarks. Some are still lit, others are not.

Here were a few of the neon-lit treasures along the way:

Philippe’s, founded by French immigrants in 1908, and the outrageous facade (carved serpent heads and hieroglyphics, anyone?) of the Mayan Theater, opened in 1927

The glowing silhouette of Chinatown and the now-defunct Johnie’s Coffee Shop, used as a film set for The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs and American History X

Did I mention the tour stops at a few historic watering holes along the way? Well, technically the Los Angeles Brewing Company (left) is new, but the restored space, in the Chapman building, is old. And Canter’s, with its famous deli counter and lesser-known dive bar, dates from 1931.

On a side note, the tour also rolled past a few of my favorite old-school bars in Los Angeles – dare I say it, anywhere in the world! – downtown’s Broadway Bar and West Hollywood’s Formosa Cafe.

All told, the Neon Cruise was invigorating and delightful. We pretty much felt like this the whole time -

What a fresh way to see Los Angeles! Get tickets – June through September – by visiting the Museum of Neon Art’s website.