On the Blink

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

This historic sign got a touch up in 1994 when the restaurant moved one building over. The sign itself, which dates from 1953, is still original, but has been repainted and had much of its internals replaced.

Photo: Elyse Butler

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.

This handsome sign dates back to 1956, when Harris Tarumoto first opened up Precision Radio. It may still work, although owner Milton Hironaka isn't sure. "It's been awhile since we've turned it on," he says, "We don't turn it on at night anymore, because we're only open during the day. And for awhile, there was a tree growing in front, blocking it."

Photo: Elyse Butler

“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.”

It's way above the eye level, but the Ambassador Hotel sign is a reminder of Waikiki's glory days. It's also a reminder of a less restrictive time, before the city and county forbade signs higher than 20 feet around 1980.

Photo: Elyse Butler

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?”


This hot-to-trot sign hasn't been lit up for decades, but it's still one of Honolulu's most well-known pieces of neon, a relic of Hotel Street's red-light district days.

Photo: Elyse Butler


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.