Neon signs beckon us to businesses, entertainment, places, or ideas. They’ve long shone brightly on the streets of Vancouver and play such a colourful role in our local history there’s even an entire museum exhibit dedicated to them. Some are legendary for their shape, their size, or their mere survival. Many neon signs have found new life with upgrades, while others come with their own stores of salvation.
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At one point, there were 19,000 neon signs in the city — a number far greater than Los Angeles and even Las Vegas.
While there have been some bright new neon additions to our cityscape in recent years, we’re taking a look at 13 of Vancouver’s long-lasting lights that you can still see today.
The Woodward’s W
Famously demolished in 2006 and redeveloped, the Woodward’s building in the Downtown Eastside was known for its giant “W” beacon (eventually installed on the top of an Eiffel Tower spire) on the rooftop. The original “W” came down more gently than the building and now sits behind glass on the site, while a replica was hoisted onto the roof.
Helen’s children’s clothing (now the Heights)
Helen Arnold opened her eponymous children’s clothing store in Burnaby in 1948, and her sign, complete with a girl moving back and forth on a swing, was installed in 1955. Although the store is long gone, the neighbourhood had the sign refit to reflect its name, Burnaby Heights, subbing Heights out for the original Helen’s, and the swinging girl was officially named Helen.
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The Astoria Hotel
Many a pint has been swilled at the Astoria over several decades, and this eclectic venue and watering hole has managed to stay afloat with aplomb, over many incarnations over many years. Its neighbour was Ted Harris’ paint shop, with its own iconic “PAINT” neon sign, and their neighbour was Wallace Neon, the starting point for many a well-known Vancouver sign.
Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret
The Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret and its girlie show is no more, but this sign is still viewable at the Museum of Vancouver. It’s so recognizably Vancouver, too, that for a while the MOV was using the image for merchandise, which didn’t sit well with the family of the club’s owner. Legal battles aside, the Smilin’ Buddha sign is a great rescue story and emblem of an era gone by in local life.
A live music venue since it opened its doors in 1941, The Vogue Theatre‘s artistic neon has been beloved by Vancouverites for decades. This “graceful reminder of the Vancouver of old” is located on Granville Street and is one of the city’s remaining establishments from the original “Theatre Row.”
Diners don’t get much more classic than The Ovaltine on East Hastings, one of the few of its kind surviving in Vancouver. Opened in 1942, behind all that dazzling neon is a venerable cafe with cheap greasy spoon breakfasts that ranks among the oldest restaurants in town. The lettering was installed in 1943 by Wallace Neon, and the vertical sign went up in 1948.
The Yale Hotel is one of Vancouver’s oldest surviving buildings. Completed in 1889, it served as a source of nightlife for blue-collar workers, and it is now a Western-themed bar.
It’s not just the lettering on the Movieland Arcade sign that’s a bit blue. Video games, movies, and an old-school peep show are what the longstanding business is all about. The business is temporarily closed.
The Sylvia Hotel
Perched on some stellar real estate overlooking English Bay, the Sylvia Hotel dates back to 1912. Boasting the city’s first cocktail bar, the hotel remains a local treasure, and its charming neon is perfectly cheery amidst all the lush vines on the building’s exterior.
The Stanley Theatre first opened as a movie house in 1930, ultimately being run by the Famous Players chain, who sold off the venue in 1991. The Stanley was converted to a stage theatre and is now home to Arts Club productions.
It’s a pretty basic font and there’s not much to note for its design, but the big letters welcoming visitors to Vancouver’s Granville Island make for one of the friendliest greetings in the city.
A National Historic site of Canada, The Orpheum got its start in 1927 as a vaudeville house and transitioned to showing films. Rescued by a public “Save the Orpheum” campaign in the early 1970s, the theatre was taken over by the City of Vancouver and remains one of the city’s civic venues. Mogul Jim Pattison donated the Orpheum’s neon sign in the 1970s.
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This article was first published in 2014 and has been updated with the latest information.