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On the Blink

Honolulu is full of amazing, historic neon. Some of it isn’t in such great shape anymore.

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This sign escaped death once in the late ’90s, when the state moved it back from the street to make way for the extension of Ward Avenue. The sign—along with the entire building, in fact—is in terrible shape at the moment, but there is hope that it will be rescued again. As we went to press, the Hawai‘i Community Development Authority was requesting bids from businesses willing to reopen the seafood restaurant and “restore the luster of this iconic waterfront.”

Photo: Elyse Butler


This classic sign helped City Mill transition from a wholesale building material supply company to a retail hardware store chain. It went up on Nimitz Highway, back when it was called Old Prison Road.

Photo: Elyse Butler



Part of Bozo’s mystique was that neon bending had always been an arcane skill in Hawaii. In his day, he was one of only a few shapers on Oahu, and shapers in general weren’t eager to expand the number of people working in their field.

Monroe, who got into the sign business around the time Bozo was getting out, says he had to travel to the Mainland to learn the craft. “Nobody here would teach it,” he says. “The old-timers didn’t want to be bothered.”

Today, Monroe is the old-timer, one of three active benders on the island. He’s been in the small Kalihi shop for 12 years. The walls are lined with old neon beer signs he’s collected in his career, along with curlicue segments of neon tubing (“shop,” “deli,” the fronds and trunk of a palm tree in two separate pieces). Some of the neon he’s in the midst of repairing, some has been hanging there for years, waiting for the right customer to come along.

 


The Leonard’s Bakery sign (left) has been one of Honolulu’s most recognizable landmarks since 1952, when the malassada shop first opened. It was in rough shape, a victim of the elements and urban wear-and-tear, but after years of wrangling, Leonard’s owners were finally able to thoroughly renovate it in 2004

Photo: Elyse Butler


This sign was nearly torn down after the venerable McCully Chop Sui closed its doors a few years ago. Mark and Carolyn Blackburn, owners of Mauna Kea
Gallery, took over the space in 2007, but had to fight for a variance from the City and County of Honolulu to keep the well-known sign lit. (Ordinarily, a business can only operate a sign advertising its own name.) Luckily, the Blackburns won their case, and the sign lives on.

Photo: Elyse Butler

 

It’s like stepping into an earlier time. “Nothing’s changed,” Monroe says. “The glass is made the same way, the phosphor coating, the neon and argon gases. Even the bending technology is the same. If you look at photos of shops from the 1940s, it’s the same equipment—the crossfire torches, the ribbon burners.”

His shop table is full of scorch marks from superheated glass tubing, as are the large paper templates he uses to lay out a new sign. “It’s not for everybody,” he admits. “The hot glass burns and blisters your fingers, you get glass cuts, there are glass crumbs all over the place. But the craft has been good to me. It’s satisfying.”

There doesn’t seem to be any new local talent following in his footsteps, but Monroe’s not too worried about the future. “Neon is going to be around for a long time,” he says. “Restaurants, bars, theaters, they’re always going to want neon signs. There’s nothing else that can give you that look.”

 

 


Photo: Courtesy Hawaii State Archives



 

 

 


Famous and Gone: Kau Kau Corner

Thanks to this sign, the crossroads of the Pacific used be right at the intersection of Kapiolani and Kalakaua, where Hard Rock Cafe sits today. The old Kau Kau Corner is long gone, but countless images of its elaborate neon sign live on—thanks to its popularity as a tourist photo-op.

 

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,February

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