Exploring Koreatown’s Past with the King of Neon

One of my favorite places is the Museum of Neon Art, which saves neon signs in addition to displaying contemporary works by neon artists, and even offering classes to keep the art of neon alive. Additionally, they offer amazing tours, which are typically done via a double decker bus. However, due to COVID they have had to change some things around, and have been offering walking tours instead of their “Neon Cruise” aboard the bus.

Recently we took the Koreatown tour, hosted by the amazing and knowledgeable Eric Lynxwiler. As the sun set we started at the remains of the Brown Derby, Eric then guided us around the area surrounding the former site of the glamorous Ambassador Hotel, pointing out various neon gems as well as amazing architecture.

The Brown Derby was an icon of Hollywood, opening in 1926 within a building shaped just as its name implied, a brown derby. Ten years later it moved one block and into a slightly bigger derby, catering to celebrities and tourists, and becoming the home of the Cobb salad. In 1980 it closed, and it ended up being partially saved and placed atop a multi-story shopping center, dubbed Brown Derby Plaza.

Sign for Brown Derby Plaza. At the top is a small image of a brown bowler hat and text below reads "Brown Derby Plaza" signs for other businesses are below, and include a bakery, dentist, and Korean food.

Brown Derby Plaza, a tan three story shopping center, on the left is the dome of the old Brown Derby.

Eric uses a megaphone to talk to those of us on the tour, he wears a shirt made of black and white images of neon signs. Behind him is the old Brown Derby, at his feet includes the brim of the hat.

The dome of the old Brown Derby.

Our tour took us around the perimeter of what was once the Ambassador Hotel, but today is the sprawling campus of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, with a handful of relics left, including this towering pillar.

A tall pillar that is curved and done in the Art Deco style, features a statue of a woman who rides a small wave with flying fish emerging from it at the base.

Carved into a small wall is an Art Deco image of a woman in bed being served by various men.

A statue of a woman who rides a small wave with flying fish emerging from it.

Opening New Year’s Day, 1921, the Ambassador was home to the spectacular Coconut Grove, and even hosted the Oscars a few times. The Ambassador received a revamp by Paul R. Williams in the 1940s, but the glitz and glamor came to a crashing end and June 5, 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated there. The hotel hobbled along until 1989 when it closed, and in 2006 it was demolished, becoming a massive campus serving over 4,000 students, in 2009. One of the remaining items is part of the facade, but was not accessible.

A neon sign reading "Chapman" in curling script.

An Italianate designed apartment building painted white. Atop the roof in elegant script reads "Evanston" with a smaller sign below reading "Apts Hotel"

In gothic script rising above a roofline reads "DuBarry"

Large letters spell out "Hotel Chancellor" atop an apartment building.

Atop an old English style brick building is a neon sign reading "The Windsor Courtyard"

The backlit plastic signs of Catalina Liquor. Catalina is spelled out in an elegant script, while Liquor is spelled out in large yellow blocks with black letters.

Eric uses a megaphone to talk to those of us on the tour, he wears a shirt made of black and white images of neon signs, behind him is Catalina Liquor.

The signage for Catalina Liquor, all of which is backlit plastic. Above the door is a sign that is an abstract of various arms intertwined holding martini glasses.

While Catalina Liquor is a backlit plastic sign, it is still amazing, complete with this abstract arm and martini design above its door that I’m utterly in love with.

The remains of an unknown bar, all that is left are small deco letters spelled out "Cocktails"

Red neon spells out "Taylor's Steak House"

A blade style neon sign juts from an apartment building reading "Chalfonte" in red.

The remains of the sign spelling "The Embassy" however the second "s" is missing.

Large neon letters spelled out "Langham" atop a building, however only "Lang" is lit in green neon.

Gothic letters of green neon spell out "Gaylord" atop a building.

Eric is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate people I know when it comes to LA and neon. He loves signs in whatever state they are in, but of course he loves them most when they are fully restored and operating. His joy and passion come through when he talks, and he doesn’t just talk about the neon itself, but the places as well, offering historical did-bits and pointing out architectural details. We stopped outside many older bars and restaurants, and Patrick and I frantically added them to our ever growing list of places to visit.

Curious to know more about the Museum of Neon Art? You can check it out in this post from our first visit, as well as get a taste for the Neon Cruise here. Eric is also an author, and wrote Spectacular Illumination, which I wrote a review on that you can read here.

To look at upcoming tours and learn more about the museum, including purchasing tickets for tours please visit their website.

Visit the Museum of Neon Art at 216 S. Brand Boulevard in Glendale.

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