SF Neon historians in search of an iconic sign
You’ve walked past them and under them a thousand times, seen them from afar and used them as landmarks. But do you really know the history behind San Francisco’s neon signs? We invite two neon historians to this episode of San Francisco Diaries podcast to tell us all about one very memorable neon sign that they are still hunting for.
Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan are the creators of San Francisco Neon, an organization of historians, educators, and advocates for the vintage neon signs you see all over our city. They are also the authors of the book, San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons.
Listen to their story:
San Francisco Neon has evening virtual presentations about the history behind historic neon signs in the Tenderloin and Chinatown, and an online version of their festival, Neon Speaks, is in September. You can find out more at SFNeon.org.
If you’re looking for more stories from San Francisco’s history buffs, be sure you check out this episode about the Transamerica Pyramid’s bohemian past.
We are dedicated to bringing you more stories about our city as told by everyday San Franciscans. If you have a story to share, or know someone with a story you think everyone should know, email us at email@example.com.
When we were art students in the 70s in San Francisco, we rode the bus a lot. It was pretty cheap entertainment.
And on every line that we liked to ride, the 38 Geary, the 27th Bryant, there is usually some landmark that we looked for waited for. We couldn’t wait to turn the corner and see it.
And it was usually a neon sign.
Neon signs were something we just always loved and paid attention to. We thought these old signs was one of the cool things about San Francisco.
Now. the 27-Bryant, there is this one sign that was in just with this beautiful monster of a sign it was a gigantic leg that was in a full skirt of a Cancan dancer. It was such a big sign that the name of the theater that it stuck on top of could be written in the actual leg of the sign.
In the thigh it said “Chez” and in the calf it said “Paree.” Chez Paree was the name of the theater right there on Mason in the tenderloin right past Eddie. The 27 Bryant would go by and we would always look for the Chez Paree sign.
We never saw it lit up. We always wondered what color it was. I made a photograph of it in the late 70s: on the marquee it said “XXX girls XXX,” so that gave us an idea of what was going on in the theater. Girls with no skin!
But it was the sign the interested us.
One day we’re on the 27-Bryant, we came around the corner, and the leg was gone. We were sad, we really missed it. We wondered how a sign that big just disappeared.
A lot of buildings on that street got torn down for a housing development. The theater closed and then it opened up later as the Union Square Sports bar with a new neon cocktail glass that replaced the giant dancing leg on top of the marquee. It just didn’t have the same charisma as the neon dancing leg.
We started noticing that more and more of these big beautiful neon signs were disappearing. On the 14-Mission line, we would always look for the Hunt’s Donuts sign. It doesn’t really get better than donuts falling out of the sky to splash into a big giant neon cup of coffee.
When that donut sign came down, we decided to start documenting these signs. Because we are photographers we thought, “let’s make a photography book, let’s document all the old neon signs we can find in every neighborhood of the city.”
And that took about five years. There are over 300 old neon signs in San Francisco. There are 96 just in the Tenderloin, we counted. These beautiful old signs are made of metal and glass. They were built to last. Some of have lasted more than 70 years and are still going strong.
We always wondered about the Chez Paree, that giant dancing leg. I wondered something must’ve happened to it. A sign that big, one and a half stories tall. A sign that amazing, a dancer’s leg with a full cancan skirt. Somebody’s gotta have it. There’s got to be some story about this sign.
Then we started looking in the San Francisco public library history center for old pictures of signs. We found a photo of Pacific Avenue and the International Settlement. It became an entertainment district right after prohibition was over.
There was a lot of neon in that photo, advertising one night club after another. And right in the middle of that photo was a giant dancing leg! But it didn’t say “Chez Paree,” it read, “Barbary Coast.”
And I thought, there were two dancing legs?! Were they ever close to each other? Did they ever form a pair? And then we found another more recent photo of the dancing leg
The first photo that we saw was from 1939. Then we saw another photo of it about 20 years later. And we got a little bit closer look at it.
They both had the word “the” written in a fancy script in the folds of the skirt. And that “the” looked really familiar from one sign to the next.
So we start comparing the photos but couldn’t imagine that it could be the same sign as the lettering was just so different. We finished our neon book titled San Francisco Neon, and we started to think: OK, now that the book is finished, we have time to learn about how neon signs are made.
We started hanging out in different sign shops and learned from a lot of different tube benders in the area people are still doing this work and restoring signs. It turns out neon signs are all made by hand, the technology is basically the same as it was when it was invented 100 years ago.
Another thing we learned was how to tell if an old sign was ever a neon sign or a bulb sign. There are always little holes punched into the metal where the neon tube goes in or the incandescent bulb is screwed in.
Now that we knew more about how a neon sign was made, we looked at the most recent photo of the Chez Paree dancing leg. When it was enlarged we could see that there were little dots that were holes in the big letters that said Chez Paree!
We literally connected the dots and realized the holes formed the letters for Barbary Coast underneath the letters Chez Paree.
The sign was re-located and given a new name when it moved from Pacific Avenue in North Beach all the way over to Mason Street in the Tenderloin.
We start looking in San Francisco public library history center again. And we found a 1964 photo that shows the giant dancing leg on one side of Mason Street with a big marquee that says “Parade of Beauties.”
And then we found another photo of the Chez Paree sign from the 70’s, the dancing leg had shuffled across to the other side of Mason street. And that’s when the marquee says “XXX Girls.”
So that was a bit of detective work. But we never knew what happened to the sign. This sign makes a cameo in a couple of Hollywood movies, and that’s when we got to see the sign in color for the first time.
A friend tipped us off that the dancing leg was featured in the movie, Pal Joey. They filmed that movie around 1957, then the Pacific Ave entertainment district called the International Settlement was really on its way out.
So the movie people were able to kind of clean it up, clear it out, and there’s Frank Sinatra walking into the Barbary Coast and you can see the flashing neon of this beautiful dancing leg.
It’s really worth looking at that movie just to see the clip of the Barbary Coast dancing leg. Then it shows up again in another movie that was made in 1973. That movie is the Laughing Policeman, which is all about vice and crime in San Francisco.
The Chez Paree giant dancing leg appears in a street scene as the background representing the seedier side of San Francisco. In this daytime scene we can see that the giant dancing leg was painted in a beautiful array of colors, sitting on top of the marquee, held up by a giant scaffold on the roof.
So where did the sign go? It’s so big!
We heard a rumor that it had been stored in the basement of the building which is now the Union Square Sports Bar. So I called them one day and I said “You know we heard there’s a giant dancing leg in the basement of your building, is that true?’ And the bartender said “I don’t know.”
I said “Would you look?” and he said “OK.”
I could hear him walking down the steps down to the basement and he said “No, no giant leg down here.” So, we don’t know what happened to the giant leg.
Does anybody know, anybody out there know what happened to the giant dancing leg of Mason Street?
What happens to all these big beautiful signs when they disappear?
The Its Tops Fountain sign was taken down. We hear it’s in the backyard of the owner’s house. The Hunt’s Donut sign on Mission, when it came down, it was rescued by Jim Rizzo of NeonWorks, one of the best neon sign shops in Oakland.
He actually rescued its twin sign, the donut sign that was on Chestnut Street, just waiting to be restored and put back up in the public eye.
And then of course on Mission Street, the 17 Reasons Why sign was a landmark until it was suddenly removed. That sign was saved rescued by the late Stephen Parr, and hopefully the 17 Reasons Why letters are still in his collection.
But if anybody hears about the dancing leg of Mason Street, let us know.