By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY CAME IN SHOUTING FOR OUR ATTENTION, born of an unprecedented urban surge and the explosive birth of mass media. Sales people often stress the importance of “always asking for the order”, but in the new emerging supercities that began sprouting after 1900, it was not so much an ask as a scream. Getting your brand noticed by any means changed the way we communicated, and, in a unique way, changed the country visually.
Billboards, which on a smaller scale had always been a part of the urban scene, became, in places like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, bigger than ever before. Businesses announced themselves with giant iron rooftop structures called scaffold signs, not pasted posters, but massive neon letters that seemed to be floating in mid-air, titanic displays that could be seen from blocks away, in what were both advertisements and address cards. Today, the signage tech has evolved from gas-filled tubing to LEDs, and, while the visual noise and insistence sales pitches of cities are still very much with us, the once-grand scaffolds have, for the most part, rusted or collapsed into memory.
Los Angeles is one of the cities that have taken a proprietary interest in preserving the greatest of the survivors, and its central core, whose entertainment district once boasted at least 100 vaudeville and film theatres, remains home to some of the neon dinosaurs of the Age of Ballyhoo, many still blinking and burning bright atop its most venerated apartment buildings and legacy skyscrapers. For me, it’s a chance to capture the fleeting shadow of how American used to “get out the word” in the earliest days of the advertising age.
I occasionally stay in the Koreatown district, in a hotel that looks directly out onto one of my favorites, the rooftop sign for the Brynmoor Apartments, which still survive and still command decent rates in a midtown neighborhood that sits at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. It may be ridiculous to work as hard (or harder) to preserve a thing that advertises an historic place as to try to save the place itself, but that’s where we are right now in our history.
And while there have been moves to stick selected “floater” signs in museums or galleries, the best move is clearly to keep them intact where they were designed to be seen. In the words of a recent Los Angeles “Historic Resources Survey”:
Rooftop signs are significant for their association with the commercial growth and prosperity of Los Angeles, the development of the city in association with transportation (streetcars and automobiles), and its reputation as a center for advertising, entertainment, and recreation.
Yeah, like they said. Crank up the wattage and turn on the time machine. We got things, and people, to sell here.
A smile generator for me.
January 29, 2023 at 9:18 AM