Virtual tour of SF neon signs as good as walk down Bush St.

Tenderloin Museum co-sponsors nifty online local art, history series

Though the pandemic has stopped historians Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan from leading one of their popular walking tours of neon signs, the pair’s Thursday evening virtual presentation about San Francisco’s TenderNob was as illuminating for guests who might well have been strolling down Bush Street.

In the first of four free, hour-long online events co-sponsored by the Tenderloin Museum and SF Neon, the photographers and authors of “Saving Neon” and “San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons” showed pictures of elegant and fun bar signs, corner store signs, garage signs and more in the Tenderloin and nearby Nob Hill – some no longer existing or operating.

The presentation, which hosted more than 60 guests, according to moderator Katie Conry, executive director of the Tenderloin Museum, opened with an image of a vintage postcard from the 1950s showing a glowing Market Street, in which just about every store front boasted a neon sign.

Today only the mid-Market Odd Fellows sign remains, said Barna.

Some of the nifty bar signs – tall ones called blade signs — have martinis on them, such as The Gangway and Lynch’s. High Tide Cocktails, a sign with waves on it at Geary and Jones streets, had been beautifully restored not too long ago, but recently went dark, due to the death of the establishment’s owner, Barna said.

Two of Homan’s favorites are the Nite Cap, with beautiful gold tubing, “tilting letters that make it fun” and a moon wearing a night cap, and Ha-Ra, with a blinking martini, simple but elegant lettering, and “crossbars that create a rhythm.”

Homan pointed to the unique appeal of neon: “Every sign is made by hand,” said Homan, adding that design elements of neon sign making haven’t changed in 100 years.

The neighborhood boasts great food store signs – Cottage Market, Pine & Jones, Food Fair, for example – as Homan shared how the “Q” in the word liquor is always distinctive.

The presentation covered hotel signs – from the no longer existing Empire Hotel on Sutter Street prominently featured in the movie “Vertigo” to the Commodore Hotel, also on Sutter (now owned by the Academy of Art University) to Huntington Hotel, which is one of the few neon roof signs in The City.

While Homan said it’s “easy to zoom by” the seemingly unassuming Grant Hotel sign on Bush Street during the day, she added, “at night, it’s completely film noir; the HOT is brighter than the EL.”

Though Barna and Homan have been studying and working to preserve neon in recent years, Barna’s interest in it goes back to when he started taking photographs in 1970.

“No matter what the subject of the photo was, there was a neon sign in it. It was like a moth to a flame,” he said.

Upcoming online presentations in the series include a neon-matchbook tour, focusing on The City’s mid-century nightlife scene via vintage matchbooks and historic signs, on June 3, and neon and ghost sign tours on June 11 and 16, each focusing on a different area of the Tenderloin.

While the presentations are free, a $10 donation is suggested. Visit http://www.tenderloinmuseum.org/events for details.

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