O‘ahu in 2010: The Neon Signs of Honoulu

With only a few “benders” on the island, classic neon signs faced a dim future in 2010.

Back in the day, McCully Chop Sui and Fisherman’s Wharf lit up Honolulu’s food scene with ‘ono bites and big neon signs. Unfortunately, both establishments are now closed. But, Von Monroe, one of the few light benders on the Island, has been keeping our city shining bright since the ’90s by using glow tricks he learned on the Mainland. In 2010, he spoke to HONOLULU Magazine about the demise of neon signs.


On the Blink


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 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. …


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. Gump’s and its sign are now long gone, but the colorful technology at the time quickly became the rage.


Today, Monroe is the old-timer, one of three active benders on the island. … 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.”


Apparently, neon-sign bending is still satisfying for Monroe. He continues to do repair work on the iconic Rainbow Drive-In, Hubba Hubba and Hawai‘i Theatre signs. And, over the years, he’s acquired new clients including Kate Spade New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, Flour and Barley, and Papa John’s.


Luckily for us, Monroe doesn’t have any burning desire to leave his craft anytime soon. As he said in 2010, “Restaurants, bars and theaters, they’re always going to want neon signs. There’s nothing else that can give you that look.”


Find more photos from Honolulu’s past every Thursday on Instagram @honolulumag.


Read more stories by Stacey Makiya