Vancouver Signs that Lit Up the Night
As a Vancouver sign company that lives and breathes signage, we’ve taken a few trips down Vancouver signage memory lane on our blog, but you can’t write about old Vancouver, BC signage without looking at neon. Although we don’t create neon signs, these vibrant signs were a salient feature of Vancouver street scenes of yesteryear and neglecting to mention them would be sign history sacrilege.
Neon sign making is a dying art, for a variety of reasons: it’s expensive and it’s being replaced by new modes of lighting and signage. In the heyday of neon (the 1940s and 50s) Vancouver was aglow with neon signs, making the downtown streets of the then smallish coastal city seem metropolitan, especially at night. Neon became synonymous with “downtowns” worldwide — an icon of the hustling, bustling urban nighttime landscape.
This beautiful sign included some fantastical creative touches including lit steam rising from a cup and a saucer carousel upon which three silhouettes spun around and around. White Lunch Cafeteria had a few locations downtown — the first (photo above) opened in 1913 across from the old Woodward’s department store. While it remained a hangout for coffee drinkers, diners and night owls of every creed in the 60s and 70s, up to the early 80s when it closed, it is said that the restaurant’s name was inspired not by its lightly coloured décor, but by its exclusionary hiring and serving policies.
Vancouver’s theatre row on Granville Street still has some amazing signs — including these classic neons that light the evening streets.
The signage of this old Vancouver gem, the Vogue Theatre, which opened in 1941, displayed a cornucopia of styles: poster signage (top left), an entrance banner combining a bold serif with a more modern sans serif font, with the movie stars names above, and of course as much neon as they could squeeze into the signs.. The Vogue is still on Granville today. You can read more about its history here.
The Orpheum’s sign is rather large considering the size of the theatre, but when you needed to be seen, a massive neon sign with a border of bulbs blinking in series did the trick. The Orpheum was built in 1927 and renovated in 2009. Patrons would stop in at the Good Eats Café before the show. Modern Vancouver signs have style and can be made of many different materials and textures, but these signs — made of bent glass tubing — are a testament to the artistry and skill of the Vancouver sign makers who created them. Being able to produce nearly any style of “font” from elegant italics to bold serifs and everything in between was an impressive, if not seemingly impossible achievement.
There were still numerous neon signs in Vancouver’s theatre row in the late 60s and 70s. The lights made the street festive, highlighting that something exciting was definitely happening down here.
The Plaza Theatre’s Art Deco sign was ringed with glowing bulbs. The Plaza first opened as The Maple Leaf Theatre in 1924, which lasted a few years then succumbed in the Great Depression. The theatre ran as the Odeon from 1963 to 1987. It changed hands a few times and shut down as a theatre for good in 1997. Since 2009, the old theatre space has been home to “Venue” nightclub.
Neon signs were not exclusive to downtown though.
Keeping up with the neighbours meant that if they had an awesome glowing sign, you did, too. Notice that CLAPPS Shoes does X-ray fittings, as indicated by the sign above the door, which might explain the glowing within. A little radiation never hurt anyone. X-ray shoe fitting wasn’t banned until the early 70s!
Finally, you can’t mention Vancouver signs of yesterday without a look at the old Aristoctratic Restaurant.
The Aristocratic was an old style diner/coffee shop that graced the corner of Granville and Broadway from 1938 to 1997, when it closed to make way for Chapters book store. Many will remember the sign with the dapper, monocled, top hat-wearing mascot “Risty” and the orange-red neon “Featuring courteous service – quality food…all over town”. In its glory days, the Aristocratic was a chain with nine stores. The Granville and Broadway location was the last restaurant standing in the chain. The Aristocratic sign may well be the most memorable, iconic Vancouver sign of old. While the Chapters store has a replica of the Risty sign, Vancouver Museum is home to the original.
Though we couldn’t find a public domain image of the Risty sign, you can have a look here.
Take a trip down Vancouver signage memory lane and visit these and more public domain images at Vancouver Public Library’s “Vancouver Neon” flickr stream.
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