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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Remembering P.F. Sloan: Was 'Eve of Destruction' a Jewish song? (From the archives)

By Steven Rosen

(This interview originally ran in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 2006, in advance of a concert appearance there to celebrate a new album, Sailover. Sloan died this week at age 70.)

"Eve of Destruction," the famous folk-rock protest hit from 1965, isn't usually regarded as a specifically Jewish song. Or even a religious one, for that matter. 
It's a litany of anguished complaints about the problems of the temporal world of the time -- civil rights marchers repelled in Selma, Ala., the imminent danger of nuclear war, the threat from a militant "Red China." It struck such a chord with a teenage audience worried about the future that it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a youthful crie de coeur against the political status quo. It became an extraordinary pop-cultural event in its own right. 
But the long-missing-in-action writer of "Eve of Destruction," 61-year-old Los Angeles resident P.F. (Phil) Sloan, cites his studies of Jewish mysticism as a key source of inspiration. After decades of fighting physical and mental illnesses that ended his professional career, Sloan is back with a new CD, "Sailover," recently released on Hightone Records. Only his sixth album since 1965, it includes versions of "Eve" and other songs he wrote in the 1960s, plus new folk-rock compositions. And he performs at Largo in the Fairfax district, where he grew up, on Sept. 27. 
After his bar mitzvah at Hollywood Temple Beth El, Sloan's rabbi recommended him for early kabbalah training, especially study of the mystical writings and Torah interpretations in the Zohar. 
"It is rare because you're supposed to be 40 [to study]," Sloan said, speaking by phone from Chicago where he was performing at a club. "My rabbi suspected I was an old soul." 
He studied for about 18 months, he said, providing him with "a greater, deeper understanding of Judaism and its relationship to people." 
But at the same time, Sloan was also interested in rock 'n' roll. In 1964, while still a teenager, he and friend Steve Barri wrote and recorded "Tell 'Em I'm Surfin'" as the Fantastic Baggys. His "P.F. Sloan" persona appeared in 1964, when in response to President John F. Kennedy's assassination, he wrote several protest songs, "Eve of Destruction," "The Sins of the Family" and "Take Me for What I'm Worth." It took a full year before the growlingly, deep-voiced singer Barry McGuire, fresh from the New Christy Minstrels, released "Eve" on L.A.'s Dunhill Records -- also Sloan's label -- and it became a hit. 
Sloan feels the song was "directly attributable" to his kabbalah studies. "The song was a divine gift," he said. "I was given information about the history of the world through that song -- not that that's unusual in mystical Judaism. It was quite a wonderful gift at age 19 to be given that. I knew it was special and knew it would change things." 
Sloan sees the song as his dialogue with God. 
"I say to God that 'this whole crazy world is just too frustrating,' and then God says to me, 'But you tell me over and over and over again about these problems I already know,'" he said. 
"It's an endless dance around this razor's edge about what God is saying every time I sing this song," Sloan explained. "He's telling me, 'Don't believe we're on the eve, I'm not going to allow it.' And then other times when I sing it, I get the message he's going to allow destruction to happen. Every time I sing it, I get an insight into what's going on." 
Sloan's parents moved from New York, where he was born as Philip Gary Schlein, to Los Angeles for his mother's arthritis. But when his father had trouble getting permission to open a downtown sundries store under his name Schlein, he changed it to "Sloan" to avoid anti-Semitism. 
Working with Barri or alone, Sloan wrote hits for other pop stars in the 1960s, including "Secret Agent Man" for Johnny Rivers, "Where Were You When I Needed You" for The Grass Roots and "Let Me Be" for The Turtles. But his attempts at becoming a successful singer-songwriter like his idol, Bob Dylan, didn't work out. He says his record company was reluctant to support him at the time and that he signed away his songwriting royalties. 
And from roughly 1971 to 1986, he said, he was incapacitated by undiagnosed hypoglycemia that led to depression and catatonia. He lived with his now-deceased parents until they found an apartment for him and helped him get nursing care. 
But in 1986, he also started visiting Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru who claims healing powers, at his ashram. He has gone back every two years and slowly started to recover. He said by 2001 he felt good enough to start performing again. In 2003, for instance, he participated in a tribute concert to Jewish religious singer and songwriter Shlomo Carlebach at Congregation Beth Jacob. 
"I'm now walking 1 1/2 miles a day," Sloan said. "I have a huge amount of energy. It's like God has touched me and just given me a tremendous amount of love and energy. I feel like I've been reactivated." 
P.F. Sloan will be at Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Doors open at 8 p.m. $5-$20. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Albums Deserving Rediscovery: Tindersticks' Clair Denis Film Scores

Clair Denis Film Scores: 1996-2009
Constellation Records  (

8 stars

Working with French director Clair Denis on six film scores over the course of 14 years really changed Tindersticks, the Nottingham rock band that seemed very moodily, literately British – Roxy Music elegance crossed with Joy Division angst – when it started releasing albums in 1993. 

Now, a much-changed Tindersticks seems more continental (bandleader/vocalist Stuart Staples has a recording studio in France) and more like serious New Music composers who selectively use rock when they choose, but have far more varied interests and a great hunger for challenging collaborations. It’s a path other arty British rockers have taken (Brian Eno, Pet Shop Boys, Jonny Greenwood) and that the new wave of Brooklyn bands, like the National, show interest in following. 

Tindersticks, originally a sextet, actually disbanded during the period covered by this set, with Staples recording solo records. The group then reformed, but with just three original members – Staples, David Boulter (keyboards and accordion) and Neil Fraser (guitar). 

Tindersticks early on showed interest in orchestration, and the band has developed that forte magically, yet ruminatively and cautiously, on these films scores.  Like Denis’ art films, which rigorously avoid sentimentality, these scores never succumb to pretty lushness. They always keep their introspective melancholy nearby. 

Perhaps the best of the six scores, which has little traditional orchestration, is for the 2008 film 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum), which features both Staples and Boulter prominently playing melodica, and Christine Ott adding touches of an early electronic instrument called Ondes Martinet. 

Violinist Dickon Hinchliffe, who on his own is credited with the score to 2002’s Vendredi Soir (Friday Night), confidently handles the stirring, yet not too stirring, violin and cello arrangements (conducted by Lucy Wilkins) for that assignment. Hinchliffe subsequently left the band to devote himself to scoring films, such as Winter’s Bone. 

Staples handled the score for 2004’s L’intrus and it’s a hypnotic, vaguely Bitches Brew-like excursion into drum loops, guitar and trumpet (Terry Edwards). Overall, vocals are few and far between on these scores, surprising since Staples’ foreboding, haunting baritone – and the lyrical subject matter befitting it – is such a major part of Tindersticks’ non-film-score recordings. 

But he does sing the achingly, chillingly, dirge-like romantic title song to Denis’ atypical sex-and-violence freakout of a horror movie, 2000’s Trouble Every Day. The other films included here are 1995’s Nenette et Boni and White Material.

Stand-out tracks:  “Trouble Every Day,” “The Black Mountain.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Jens Lekman in Bloomington, Ind. -- 2012: From the Archives

(Note -- Nov. 3, 2015 -- With Jens Lekman due in Cincinnati this month to work on his Ghostwriting project at Contemporary Arts Center and then perform at Woodward Theater on Nov. 20, here's a review of his 2012 show in Bloomington, Ind.)

Concert Review:

By Steven Rosen

Jens Lekman with Taken by Trees
Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington, Ind.
October 1, 2012
Blurt Magazine (online)

It may seem strange for Jens Lekman – the Swedish singer-songwriter of worldly, romantic pop songs rendered with the wry lyrical detail and rhythmic flourish of a post-dance music Burt Bacharach – to start his North American tour in support of the new I Know What Love Isn’t in Bloomington, Ind. One thinks of his audience as cosmopolitan and urban, and the other shows mostly will be in big cities.

But Bloomington is home to his label, Secretly Canadian. (It’s also Indiana University’s home.) And he’s now been there frequently enough, he told his audience at the city’s restored downtown movie palace, that he’s become something of a local celebrity. “Not being a stranger here anymore, I have to do a really good show,” he explained from the stage. Then he named some of the businesses where he has become a familiar face and where shopkeepers have wished him good luck on this tour.

They needn’t worry. Lekman and his four band members – plus a “fifth,” a trusty Roland SP-404 portable sampler that he keeps on a stand near him – clearly established that he is a budding pop star with an irresistibly appealing live act. Dressed in a sport coat and wearing a dark cap and slacks that contrasted with his white shirt and shoes, holding an acoustic guitar that he could sway like a dance partner when excited, he conveyed his enthusiasm throughout the show.

His color-coordinated band seemed to get high off his good spirits – Julia Rydholm was the happiest bassist in showbiz, violinist Josefin Runsteen played barefoot, pianist Jonas Abrahamsson provided flourish and grandeur, and drummer Hampus Ohman Frolund kept the beat in the forefront. (Maybe a little too in the forefront – he seemed to rush Lekman through the finest song on his new album, the delicately intricate “The World Moves On.”)

It took only the second number for most of the first-floor audience of primarily college students to get out of their seats and stand near the stage to be close to him. And they stayed there. He’s still a developing act commercially – about two-thirds of the theater’s 600 seats were filled – but he has 100% commitment from his fans.

As a singer-songwriter, Lekman has the rare ability to seemingly create melody with his voice and let the music fall into place behind him. There are all sorts of stops and starts, shifts in time and meter, unexpected choruses and rousing sing-along moments. The melody just seems to naturally, organically develop –elegantly, poignantly and spontaneously – from his voice and phrasing.

And that music pops and swings as if untethered. It’s very danceable and disco-influenced but never regimented or monotonously repetitive. It’s a rare trait for a singer-songwriter – mid-1970s Jackson Browne had it (“For a Dancer”) and Morrissey, too. And Lekman’s lyrics are equal to his peers, very personal and emotional but fleshed out with fascinating details from his well-traveled life and his romantic encounters and heartbreaks. 

At the Bloomington show, he took time to offer stories behind some of the songs. “Waiting for Kirsten,” from last year’s An Argument With Myself EP, was about hoping Kirsten Dunst would show up at a Swedish club to meet him after she had expressed interest in his music. As he explained, she did arrive while he was inside but the club – committed to egalitarianism in its admission policies – made her wait in line, so she left.

And he prefaced “A Postcard to Nina,” the hauntingly lovely song about a young German woman who tells her father that Lekman is her lover to hide the fact she’s gay, with a story about being invited to a German vegetarian dinner at their home. “I didn’t know they had German vegetarian food,” he said.

On his new album, he’s moving toward more classically constructed songs like “Become Someone Else’s,” “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots” and “I Know What Love Isn’t.” They maintain their stateliness live without feeling constricted.

Actually, on record they often are infused with melancholy. Lekman on stage balances even his most introspective songs with the happiness he feels as a performer. At one point, bopping around the stage and moving his hands as if flapping wings, the thin Lekman goofily reminded one of Pee Wee Herman. And when he punches the buttons on his sampler, one never knows what might happen – hypnotic metronome beats, a saxophone solo or, during the euphoric  “The Opposite of Hallelujah, ” a snatch of an oldie with a similar melody, Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time.”

To start the first encore, the sampler provided the swirling harp intro, before the band kicked in, to Night Falls Over Kortedala’s anthemic “Your Arms Around Me.” It’s a marvel of vividly singular songwriting, paralleling an accident while slicing an avocado with a declaration of love to a devoted partner, that is both intimately touching and weird. It was a crowd favorite.

And he closed the show by quietly playing acoustic guitar while singing “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name” from the new album. (An instrumental version began the show.) His voice unadorned had the introspective resonance of Paul Simon on what seemed like a folk song. It brought the concert full circle.

The show opened with a set from Taken by Trees, a band led by Victoria Bergsman (the Concretes) that was celebrating its new album Other Worlds. The album’s music had been inspired by her visit to Hawaii, but the live band – featuring spare and edgy guitar work from Matt Popieluch and Dan Iead’s lap-steel-guitar/bass work – gave the songs more of a country-tinged, moody, post-Velvet Underground alternative-rock vibe. Bergsman explained they had a problem getting to the gig on time, and she seemed tired and struggling vocally. The set got stronger as it continued, however, ending with the lilting, transfixing “Dreams” from the new album.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

From the Archives: Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York"

(Writer's note: With Kaufman's long-awaited next film, Anomalisa, due to be released soon, here's a look at his 2008 movie Synecdoche, New York from Cincinnati CityBeat.)

Synecdoche, New York (Review)

Screenwriter du jour Charlie Kaufman strikes again in his directorial debut

It’s useful to know two things going into Charlie Kaufman’s head-trip of a movie, Synecdoche, New York. “Synecdoche” is a literary term, referring to the part being representative of the whole — as in “Times Square is New York City.” 

Also, Kaufman as a television and film writer — from Chris Elliott’s Get a Life! through Being John MalkovichAdaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — is very “meta,” letting you know that his characters know that you know that they know that he knows … that everyone knows the fourth wall in drama isn’t a sacrosanct rule but merely a concept to be toyed with at will. 

And, wow, does he ever toy with it in Synecdoche! It features Philip Seymour Hoffman as partly frail, partly hypochondriac theater director Caden Cotard, who sets out to use a MacArthur Foundation genius grant to make a tough, uncompromising play about (his) life. 

In the process, he re-creates New York City in a gigantic, abandoned warehouse in the city. As the years go on, so do rehearsals — and he becomes increasingly obsessed with having actors mirror his life and relationships even as they unfold. Maybe before they unfold. And as the actors become emotionally involved in the lives they are mimicking, additional actors must then come in to play them, so the whole scenario keeps expanding.

At the same time, Caden — and Kaufman’s film — seems to leap between reality and fantasy in navigating his own life, especially as it relates to his wife (Catherine Keener), daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), therapist (Hope Davis), various girlfriends (Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams) and “actors” shadowing him for the never-finished play (Tom Noonan, Dianne Wiest and Emily Watson).

Surprisingly, given the Pirandello-esque conceptual underpinning of Synecdoche, it’s easy to follow. Even as mirror images of characters and their environments begat more mirror images, like the famous cover of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma album or an M.C. Escher print, it happens in such a visually logical way that you can follow it step-by-step. 

For all his avant-gardist sensibilities, Kaufman believes in a good, strong narrative. He’s also not a sarcastic or pessimistic ironist who wants to remind us that life is just to die. He’s a humanist at heart. As is Caden.

And because you care about Caden (thanks to Hoffman’s empathetic performance), you want to follow the film, even when the repetition ultimately starts to spiral around itself and become tiresome toward the end. It helps that the set design, special effects and cinematography are superior — the world inside the hangar is like a colossal indoor theme park.

Maybe because Hoffman came up through character acting, and looks neither particularly young nor old, he’s able to let his character effectively age without relying solely on the makeup to do the job. He’s also, by now, so used to playing smart characters (Capote and The Savages are recent examples) with an edge that he can do it without trying to impress us with their (or his) intelligence. He doesn’t come on too strong.

Kaufman surrounds him with a who’s-who of respected actresses (as well as the exuberant Noonan) with a penchant for indie film, all of whom are very good. The cast list reads like a highlight reel of past Independent Spirit Award nominations.

Perhaps making the biggest impression among Synechdoche’s actresses is Morton, who plays Caden’s buxom, teasing mistress Hazel, whose soft, happy-sad voice keeps threatening to fade away in mid-sentence. Their scenes together are pure joy, like something out of a romantic screwball comedy from the 1930s. At least until Caden’s insecurities — and the aging process — intervene.

There’s so much here that’s intriguing, challenging and visually arresting, as well as so much delightful acting, that the repetitious stretches, overreaching and vaguely maudlin ending aren’t that bothersome.

In fact, whatever its weaknesses, this is must-viewing for the art-house crowd. Thank God there are still directors trying to solve the meaning of life, as well as the potential of film, as if nobody’s ever tried before. 

Grade: B plus

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

From the Archives: Los Angeles Neon Is Being Preserved, Revived

Los Angeles Neon

By Steven Rosen

(From Modernism Magazine, 2006)

It was a warm, lovely October evening in Hollywood. Every quirky, eccentric and beloved 20th Century architectural landmark in the colorful Los Angeles district, from the stack-of-platters-shaped Capitol Records building to the Cinerama Dome movie theater to the hillside Hollywood sign, looked its gleaming best in the clear, fresh air.

As the sky grew darker, people arrived for a cocktail party on the deck of an office building. They were coming to witness the return of a long missing-in-action Hollywood attraction, the Art Deco-designed The Broadway Hollywood neon rooftop sign. It’d been at least 35 years since it last was on – nobody knew for sure when it was permanently shut off.

First lit in 1931, it had heralded a now-closed department store inside the building below it at the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine. The sign had first been turned off during World War II, when Los Angeles feared Japanese air raids, and had only been on intermittently in the 1950s and 1960s. Some at the party recalled how it shone through a hotel window during an old “I Love Lucy” episode.

They ate filet-mignon kabobs and pear-and-gorgonzola-filled philo-dough appetizers, ordered drinks and chatted while a polite pop singer serenaded with gentle romantic ballads. Finally, when night had truly arrived, speakers took the stage and called attention to that still-darkened, monumental neon sign hovering above them on scaffolding to the north. It was time to turn it back on – after all these years.

As part of a remarkable ongoing project in Los Angeles called LUMENS, part-historic preservation and part-public art and inspired by Raymond Chandler’s detective-noir writings about the city, The Broadway Hollywood was getting a facelift and making a comeback.

It was to become the 127th neon (or, in a few cases, incandescent) outdoor sign revived by the program, almost all of them from the heyday of LA neon between the 1920s into the early 1940s. (LUMENS stands for Living Urban Museum of Electric and Neon Signs.)

“I’ve driven by the sign for over 30 years dreaming of the day it would glow again,” said David Bohnett, the GeoCities founder whose foundation provided $44,425 of the money toward the $56,925 cost of the renovation. Community Redevelopment Agency/Los Angeles contributed the rest. “This magnificent light is more than a sign, it’s a symbol. It heralds the renewal of a Hollywood we have all been awaiting.”

Once it dramatically flashed on, the decades of neglect instantly evaporated. It was as elegant and retro-chic as a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical, its bright uncluttered lettering almost floating in the nighttime horizon. The word “The” softly glowed in white – its slanted, script-like font featuring a dramatically plunging, 22-foot-high T. “Broadway,” also white and in 10-foot-high lettering, had a bold-faced, double-neon outline that made it as commandingly reassuring as The New York Times masthead. By contrast, “Hollywood,” in streamlined seven-foot-high powder-blue lettering, was as trim and glamorous as a starlet’s waistline.

People gaped, smiled and applauded. “I don’t know about you, but I have goose bumps,” said Kate Bartolo, senior vice president for development of the Kor Group. It owns the sign as well as the now-vacant, 1927 Renaissance-Revival building that it is atop. Kor Group bought it to convert into condominiums; renovation is underway. The project will be called Broadway Hollywood and Kor will keep the sign lit at night at an estimated energy cost of 55 cents per hour.

“Personally, I think LUMENS is the coolest thing the city of Los Angeles has ever done – maybe the coolest thing any city has done,” said Jake Platt, of the non-profit Los Angeles Conservancy preservation organization, to the crowd. Everyone agreed.

Several weeks later, Adolfo Nodal – the father of LUMENS – was sitting on a patio overlooking a 32-acre cornfield, of all things, in a heavily industrial downtown area. Actually, it’s called Not a Cornfield – it’s a temporary living sculpture funded by the Annenberg Foundation to reclaim neglected urban land – and he’s its general manager. He left the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, from where he shepherded neon restoration, in 2000. But he has remained an advocate.

While it’s as removed as possible from the neon commercial signs he has long worked to preserve, Not a Cornfield is typical of Nodal’s interest in championing the artfulness of everyday objects in the urban landscape. “He’s a visionary kind of guy,” said Kim Koga, director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Neon Art, which now administers the LUMENS program. “LUMENS mainly is Al Nodal – it’s been his passion,” added Jerry Miers, a foreman for Standard Electrical Services, which has done the actual work of restoring the city’s inactive and decrepit neon signs.

To Nodal, the lure of neon is history – the history of 20th Century urbanism in Los Angeles. “The signs became a symbol of modernism when they first came in the 1920s,” he said. “It was such a hip thing and everybody wanted to get on the bandwagon and have a modern-looking sign on their buildings.”

Nodal had moved to Los Angeles from Washington in the 1980s to be director of exhibitions for Otis Art Institute, in the shopworn MacArthur Park area of the city just west of downtown along the city’s main east-west highway, Wilshire Boulevard. He also at first lived nearby. “I started reading Raymond Chandler – it gave me a wonderful appreciation for old buildings in Los Angeles,” he recalled. “I started to see them in a different way. There was a passage in ‘Little Sister’ about neon and I started looking up and right at my building, the Ansonia, I saw a sign.” It wasn’t turned on at night, however – most had been off since World War II.

That passage from the 1949 novel read: “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights.”

Working with artist Alexis Smith, Nodal developed a 1987 test project in which six area signs were turned on. In 1988, Nodal became general manager of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department and started working on a plan to relight 50 rooftop signs along Wilshire – mostly once-stately apartment buildings that had once proudly, enticingly asserted their names in neon.  “The words they used on their buildings are incredibly beautiful, themselves – the Ansonia, the Asbury, the Du Barry.”

To get building owners to agree, Nodal’s agency offered to pay not only the renovation expenses, but the upkeep and electricity costs for five years.  It took several years and about $350,000, but in 1993 some 50 rooftop signs along Wilshire were brought back to life. And the city began to notice the revival of a forgotten era of civic optimism, as well as the graceful, stylized beauty of the lettering of these signs.

According to the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, neon light first was produced in France in 1910, when physicist George Claude applied electricity to a tube containing argon and neon gases and the result was intense red and blue lights. (Other colors are derived from the tint of the glass tubes, which are handmade and bent to shape.)

In 1923, a Los Angeles car dealer purchased and installed the first neon sign in the United States for his Packard dealership on Wilshire. The precise, controlled nature of the illumination seemed more like an artist’s painting than other, messier light sources of the time. It had a galvanizing effect on a city discovering itself. The population was exploding from 100,000 in 1900 to 1.2 million by 1930.

And these boom years corresponded with the Jazz Age, with its taste for decorous glitter and razzmatazz. Los Angeles was at the center of it. “Neon came to Los Angeles in the Jazz Age and it made a statement, along with all the klieg lights that swept Hollywood, the Art Deco buildings, and the car culture, that everything seemed so hopeful,” said Eric Lynxwiler, a Los Angeles urban anthropologist, neon aficionado and co-author of the new book “Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles.”  “I find a hopefulness and promise in those neon signs we probably haven’t seen since the 1950s.”

Neon sprouted everywhere on buildings, especially on the marquees of the Hollywood and new downtown movie palaces of the 1920s and 1920s. But rooftop signs became especially popular because the city at the time had a 150-foot height limit on buildings, which meant they could make a huge visual impact on motorists at night. 

And not just motorists, but also pilots. One of the most important LUMENS restorations was of the 1930 three-sided Bendix sign on downtown’s fringes. It’s a 150-foot tower built atop the old Bendix Aviation Corp. building, with the company’s name spelled out vertically in bright-red letters. The top “B’’ is 25 feet tall and double-outlined, while the others are a still-impressive 10 feet tall. 

According to a 1930 article in Signs of the Times trade journal, it originally had a flashing beacon and a neon arrow and marker on the building’s roof to guide pilots to the nearby airport.  “It actually had a function – pilots used to line up by it,” said Miers, of Standard Electrical Services.

Turned back on in 2003, for a total cost of $46,200, the sign is now visible for miles. However, Museum of Neon Art’s Koga said no physical evidence of the rooftop’s neon arrow and market was found.

In the post-war era, with L.A.’s large rooftop neon turned off, neon lost its luster as the latest thing. New kinds of outdoor lighting also became popular – backlit plastic signs and fluorescent bulbs, especially. The urban renewal movement of the 1950s and 1960s viewed neon as a means by which taverns, tattoo parlors, pawnshops and other tawdry businesses forced their presence on the urban landscape.  Suburbia, for that matter, became the exciting future – the older parts of city, itself, like their big neon signs, seemed passé.

That’s where Nodal changed things. Once the Wilshire corridor’s signs were relit, his agency moved on to Hollywood. Actually, The Broadway Hollywood is one of the last of that area’s big signs to be turned back on – others included one of the most difficult projects to date, the twin towers atop Hollywood Boulevard’s Pacific Theater, a 1928 Renaissance Revival movie palace currently used by University of Southern California to test digital projection equipment. Each has 2,000 separate incandescent bulbs. (They currently are turned off; Nodal advocates replacing the lighting system with LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, to cut down on the need to change light bulbs.)

“I wanted to fix the signs but I also was searching for a way to make history come alive,” Nodal said. “At that time, I was managing the historic preservation program for the city. I saw all the battles over bricks and mortar, and people not having vision of what history meant. I thought neon is a hip thing, it’s really from L.A. and something homegrown here, so maybe this project can really turn people on about history.”

Under Mayor James Hahn, who took office in 2001 but lost his reelection bid in 2005, the ongoing budget for LUMENS was cut. As a result, new projects were slowed and maintenance ceased. There have been only five new LUMENS-related sign-restoration projects since 2002 – The Broadway Hollywood; the nearby and smaller Hotel Plaza sign featuring multicolored flickering stars; Bendix; and the marquees of two of the glorious old downtown movie theaters, the Los Angeles and the Palace. In addition, in a controversial move, a neon outline was added to a defunct rooftop radio tower downtown.

But parallel private restoration, as well as ongoing support from regional public redevelopment agencies, has picked up some of the slack. The Kor Group, for instance, is also turning the 1930 ZigZag-Moderne-style Eastern Columbia building, one of the most attractive in the city with its blue terracotta cladding, into condos. As part of that project, it last year restored two of the four clocks on the tower, including new neon for the clock arms, numbers and the word “Eastern.” The other two will follow.

In adjacent Culver City, the redevelopment agency, which owned the vacant 1947 Streamline Deco-style Culver Theatre, required new operator Center Theatre Group to restore the neon as part of converting the building to live performances.

The $8 million project – including a $1.25 million city grant – has resulted in almost one linear mile’s worth of white neon being revived on the theater’s marquee, façade and on the 30-foot-tall tower. There, the vertically stacked word “Culver” is outlined in neon while incandescent bulbs flash on and off within the lettering’s borders. Its effect on the downtown area is like an extended lightning bolt.  “It really pops out,” said Miers of Standard Electrical Services, which did the work.

Perhaps the most important news is that Nodal says Los Angeles’ new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has agreed to restore enough money to LUMENS in 2006 to fix the ones that have again fallen into disrepair. Nodal, who plans to take part, estimates that will cost about $125,000. And then there are the rooftop signs he never got to that he’d still like to restore. “We did a helicopter survey of the tops of all buildings to see if signs were lying down and there were some,” he said. “And I would say there are another 200-300 signs out there not even mapped that we could do.”

The Museum of Neon Art, meanwhile, also plans to stay involved. And it wants to continue moving beyond rooftops. “We want to brainstorm and see how we can set up LUMENS, we want to keep it with the Museum of Neon Art because it can help it, but we want to get a logo for it, fundraise for it, and somehow make it part of (other) conservancy projects,” Koga said.

 “And we’ve been on the brink of this, we’d like to put some of the signs back on the buildings where they were commissioned to be,” she said. For instance, last year the museum was given a long-missing Art Deco-style neon sign that stood above the entranceway to a 1938 Wilshire camera store called The Darkroom. The building, itself, has a nine-foot-high façade designed to resemble a 35-millimeter camera and is so unique it was named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. While the sign is damaged and without neon tubing, Koga would like to restore it and put it back on the storefront – which no longer is a camera shop. “It’d be exciting to put that sign back on the building,” she said. “Really, that would make the whole building a sign.”

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