On the Blink
Honolulu is full of amazing, historic neon. Some of it isn’t in such great shape anymore.
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In 1978, HONOLULU Magazine ran a story entitled “Neon Signs Are Coming Back.” Fluorescent lights had threatened to kill off the glowing tubes in the late ’60s, but, a decade later, the warm, custom look of neon was popping up all over town.
Thirty years later, many of those classic signs have gone dark. Businesses have disappeared, taking their signage with them, other signs have simply been neglected. Technology isn’t helping: LED lights are taking over the classic neon option in new signs, and mass-produced neon “Open” signs have all but replaced the old, custom-built ones.
Von Monroe, owner of local sign shop Strictly Neon, laments the change. “These days, Open signs all come from Costco and Sam’s Club. Now you drive down the street and every Open sign looks the same. There’s no individuality.”
Honolulu’s restrictive signage regulations haven’t made it easy to preserve old neon, either. The iconic Leonard’s Bakery sign rusted and sagged for years before the bakery was able to get a variance to renovate the sign. The owners of Mauna Kea Galleries also faced an uphill battle to keep the old McCully Chop Sui sign lit.
“There’s aren’t that many working signs left. The state and the city and county aren’t very interested in allowing people to retain them,” says Monroe.
It may just be a matter of time before Honolulu’s neon gets the respect it deserves. Ralph Kam, dean of Honolulu Community College and a self-professed neon buff, says neon played an integral role in making Honolulu look the way it does today. “If you think about Hawaii’s aesthetic history, you can’t overlook those historic signs,” he says. “The Wo Fat sign, the Hawaii Theatre marquee, all the Consolidated movie houses.”
Honolulu’s first neon sign flickered to life on Feb. 19, 1929, with the opening of Gump’s Waikiki an antiques and home furnishing store. (The Gump Building today houses the Louis Vuitton boutique.) Gump’s and its sign are now long gone, but the colorful technology at the time quickly became all the rage.
Chinatown’s red-light district—with its strip clubs, bars and tattoo joints—became an obvious neon hotspot, but you could also find bright signs promoting everything from family restaurants to fresh Island eggs.
There was even a local superstar neon “bender” (as they’re called): Robert “Bozo” Shigemura. He got his start in the late 1920s, and crafted such famous signs as the original Hawaii Theatre marquee, and the Wo Fat Chop Sui and Club Hubba Hubba signs. HONOLULU Magazine’s ’78 profile of the recently retired bender noted his minor celebrity status: “Anytime is the right time for gratis cookies and milk at Famous Amos; theaters, restaurants and clothing stores throw out warm welcomes—and who knows what might result from those blushing pink letters atop the Club Hubba Hubba?”