To Joseph Romero, a 30-year Pico Rivera resident, a huge neon sign — maybe the biggest commercial sign in Southern California — is very personal. It's the sign that stands guardian over Whittier's Rose Hills Memorial Park, more than a century old and the largest cemetery in North America.
"A couple of my friends are interned [sic] here," Romero says. "We've spent days of our youth here by the sign, and it does bring back memories of them, especially as one of my friends is buried within a hundred feet of the sign. It has a place in my heart, I can honestly say that."
How old does he think it is? "I assume that it's been there since the '50s," he says.
The story goes that Rose Hills' president John Gregg commissioned the sign in the 1940s. But exactly who manufactured it was lost to history — until we did some digging that surprised even the cemetery's PR man.
But first, let's talk about the sign itself.
Eric Lynxwiler, a historian with L.A.'s Museum of Neon Art, says a garish neon sign isn't odd in a cemetery.
"In the 1940s every modern business in America had to have a neon sign in order to say that they were a modern business."
But it sure is big. He compares it to the sign on the Bendix tower in downtown L.A.
"The capital letter B at the top is about 25 feet tall, but the letters below it are about 10 feet tall each."
But the Rose Hills sign's letters are each 19'6" tall — on average, much bigger than the Bendix sign.
(The neon sign atop the Bendix Tower in Downtown L.A., installed in 1930. Credit: J. Eric Lynxwiler/Museum of Neon Art)
But back to our mystery.
Nick Clark, Rose Hills' PR man, says he doesn't know how old the sign is or who built it.
"The people who know," he says, "might still be here at Rose Hills, but they're probably buried."
Clark also said that the sign has been moved a few times since the 1940s, and was briefly turned off during the energy crisis of the 1970s — until the FAA asked for it to be turned back on since pilots used it for reference.
Clark suggested we check with Power Up, the company that maintains the neon lights on the sign today. They didn't know how old the sign is or who made it, but in turn sent us to Quiel Brothers Sign Company, which cared for the sign before them. And that was the lead we were looking for, with a result that shocked Lynxwiler and Clark.
Quiel Brothers co-owner Larry Quiel found invoices and design cards from 1990 for an entire replacement of a wooden-neon sign, meaning the sign is really only 25 years old. Quiel explained the original wooden sign had to go because, "between the warping and the splitting they were flexing too much, breaking the neon on them." The wood letters were replaced with metal "open-channel" letters and new neon tubes.
(The original wooden Rose Hills sign. Date unknown. Note the serif points that distinguish the sign from its metal replacement. Courtesy Rose Hills Memorial Park)
But they did a great job. Lynxwiler says the sign has the craftsmanship of one built in the 1940s.
Says Rose Hills' Nick Clark, "We're the caretakers of peoples' memories, so we come to value things from the past and that are old, and having the sign here and now learning that it's not as old as I thought it was, it's a little disappointing."
(A recovered sign from Reseda's Lorenzen Mortuary,1950-2010, in transit to L.A.'s Museum of Neon Art. Credit: J. Eric Lynxwiler/Museum of Neon Art)