Neon Nights: An Illuminating Look at America After Dark


3 minute Read

From the elegant marquees of historic watering holes, to flickering Budweiser logos outside beer-stained dives, few things pair as well as neon and bars.

Neon lighting was discovered in London in 1898, but it wasn’t used for signage until a French entrepreneur brought the technology to Paris in 1910. By the 1930s, neon had made its way to the United States and was lighting up businesses in major cities from coast to coast.

The popularity of neon in the alcohol industry grew when beer companies began producing an endless stream of lighted advertisements for bars to hang in their windows, enticing prospective patrons to come inside and drink their brews. The electric effect has been drawing barflies to a neon flame ever seen.

Neon signage is currently in the midst of a renaissance, with bars like the AvroKO-designed Genuine Liquorette in Manhattan’s Chinatown giving the bright stuff a 21st-century spin. But liquor stores, casinos, and dive bars nationwide still proudly display illuminated mid-century icons. Here are a few of the most notable neon examples from America’s collective consciousness.

Circus Liquor, Los Angeles, California

Circus Liquor

Instagram @valley_raised

In “Clueless,” when Cher is deserted in a parking lot after a party, she is mugged underneath the sinister grin of a 32-foot neon clown. The iconic sign belongs to Circus Liquor, a Los Angeles liquor store.

Although in the movie Cher says she’s in Sun Valley, Circus Liquor is actually located in North Hollywood on Vineland Avenue. Since it opened in the 1960s, the store has dutifully lit up the giant neon clown every night.

From far away, the clown (nicknamed “Valley”) may seem friendly enough. But on closer observation, his nastier features emerge. He has Xes for eyes and a red slash across his face. By night, the clown lights up red, yellow, and blue.

Over the past 50 years, the sign has become a landmark and selling point for the store. It’s been featured in the films “Alpha Dog,” “Spun,” and “Blue Thunder.” Official Circus Liquor merchandise featuring the clown is available inside.

Unfortunately for those with phobias, the giant neon clown is not unique. He has an even more creepy relative in Middletown, New Jersey. Calico the Food Circus Clown, as he’s known by locals, lives outside of a liquor store called Spirits Unlimited and terrifies all who pass by with his wagging finger and harlequin suit.

Green Mill, Chicago, Illinois

Green Mill

@allthingsmeng, Instagram

If nothing else, we can all agree that Al Capone had good taste in hangouts. Chicago’s infamous mobster made the Green Mill in Uptown one of his regular haunts — something we credit in no small part to the club’s elegant neon marquee.

Elegant green cursive and a backdrop of twinkling lights transport visitors back to a bygone era of jazz. And a matching neon sign on the club’s stage reminds visitors where they are.

The club opened in 1910, and its name is an homage to Paris’s Moulin Rouge (translation: “Red Mill”). The owners chose to make green the club’s signature color to avoid any confusion with the red-light districts around town. It soon became an institution, hosting some of the best names in jazz , including Von Freeman, Franz Jackson, and Wilbur Campbell. And in the ‘80s the club was given new life as the birthplace of slam poetry.

The Green Mill even made a name for itself in Hollywood. Movies like “Ocean’s 12,” “The Lake House,” and “High Fidelity” all filmed at the club.

Bagdad Theatre & Pub, Portland, Oregon

Bagdad

@victoriagarza05, Instagram

In 1927, when citizens of Portland wanted to escape, they went to Bagdad.

Oregon architects Lee Arden Thomas and Albert Mercier designed the building — along with several other historic Oregon landmarks — following the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and incorporated many Middle Eastern elements into their designs.

The Moorish, Egyptian, and even Mayan motifs throughout the Bagdad drew in moviegoers from across the city; so much so that other theaters began incorporating similar designs to compete with “The Oasis for Entertainment.” The theater’s original sign (which hung out over the street) was replaced with the Arabian-themed vertical one, although the wraparound marquee still resembles the one from the ‘20s.

The Bagdad has continued screening movies throughout its history and even expanded, adding a pub for pre- and post-show drinks. The theater also hosted the gala premieres of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975 and “My Own Private Idaho” in 1991.

Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada

Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino

@joeyfaulks, Instagram

It’s impossible to imagine the skyline of Las Vegas without the glitz of neon. Of the many signs along the Strip, the rounded balloon of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino is among its most iconic — despite being erected in 1999. It sits just down the block from a 46-story replica of the Eiffel Tower and other ersatz Parisian landmarks. According to the hotel, the hot-air balloon is supposed to signify the first human flight, which took place in a balloon in Paris in 1783.

Other notable signs in the area include the marquee at the Riviera (currently closed), the towering letters of the Lady Luck Casino and the ubiquitous Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada sign.

Thirsty for more of the city’s historic night lights? Check out The Neon Museum Las Vegas.

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