• Lawrence Herzog

Vancouver's City Lights: The Warm Glow of Nostalgia

Originally published October 2002

Her discovery of a large group of uncatalogued neon signs in a Vancouver warehouse got Joan Seidl thinking. As curator of history at Vancouver Museum, she was intrigued by the possibilities of bringing the signs into the light of day and assembling an exhibit that would showcase the vintage neon of the 1940s and 1950s a remarkable time of growth and change for Canada's west coast city.

Many of Vancouver's well-known bands got their start playing at the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret, welcomed by buddha, whose animated tummy appears to jiggle as he laughs. The sign was made by Wallace Neon in the 1940s and remained until the early 1990s when the club closed. It later turned up on stage with the band 54-40, who had a special case built to transport the sign between performances.

"The signs eloquently captured a tawdry, go-ahead quality of Vancouver in that era and, the more I researched it, the more I realized that this collection of signs was a great opportunity waiting to happen," Seidl explains. The result was City Lights: Neon in Vancouver, an exhibit which opened in March 1999 and continued into 2001.

The reaction from patrons was immediate and passionate. "Neon speaks to us and evokes intense memories for a lot of people," she says. "Neon signs help us remember our childhoods through their fun, funky designs, colors and warmth. There's nothing quite like neon to evoke nostalgia."

Made by Neon Products in the 1950s, the Owl Drugs sign featured "Hootie the owl," mascot for this North American chain of drugstores, with eight locations in Vancouver.

In the early 1960s, Vancouver boasted some 19,000 neon signs, illuminating the city's commercial streets in a riot of color and movement. They ranged from the simple to the elaborate and the delicate to the grand. There were delicate windows signs, like the delicate neon dogwood flowers which beckoned from the window of the Silver Grille Cafe and massive works of sign art, such as the giant "Owl Drug We Deliver" sign which measured 15 feet long and six feet high.

The "Regent Tailors" sign shouted its message with neon-illuminated sheet metal letters, a Las Vegas style light bulb arc and flashing chaser arrows. The sign is so large that its elements had to be reconfigured to fit under the museum's 16-foot ceilings.

While neon signs in most other cities were sold outright, in Vancouver they were usually leased and business owners signed maintenance contracts, ensuring that the stock of signs were kept in good working order. When a business went out of business, the signs were quickly removed, which means most of the city's vintage signs have now vanished.

The "Agnew Diamonds" sign is one of the oldest artifacts in the exhibit, constructed by Neon Products around 1930 using decorative stamped metal and light bulbs to outline the edges. A leaded glass insert in the shape of a diamond would have been lit from the inside.

The exhibit and an accompanying website were made possible by the support of the Digital Collections Program of Industry Canada and Neon Products Ltd. of the Pattison Sign Group in Vancouver, whose craftsmen delicately restored the signs to working condition.

Photos by Shani Whitbread, courtesy Vancouver Museum.

© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.

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©2019 Lawrence Herzog.