Busy Bee's restored sign.

Born in the 1920s, local hardware store Busy Bee was a Santa Monica mainstay, buzzing around Santa Monica Boulevard for nearly a century. The business flapped its wings for the final time in 2017 after problems with its lease, leaving the familial neighborhood store and its signature neon bee a soon-to-be-forgotten memory.

Or so Santa Monica thought. The future of the Busy Bee’s bee, at the very least, is now bright.

Busy Bee’s owners recently crossed paths with the Museum of Neon Art, a museum filled with glowing relics of a bygone era. Naturally, that made the bee itself a perfect fit for the museum’s collection of neon signs, keeping the Santa Monica stalwart’s memory alive for generations to come.

The sign will now bee (sorry) a featured piece in the MONA’s upcoming exhibit, KINETIC ENERGY: Art That Won’t Sit Still, an art exhibit that will display kinetic sculptures, animated neon signs and plasma art pieces.

Kim Koga, Executive Director of the MONA, discussed what made the Bee special, what went into restoring the sign and more before KINETIC ENERGY’s opening reception this weekend.

Could you describe your role at MONA?

I’m a hands-on director — meaning I’m involved with all aspects of the museum.

We’ve been around since 1981, and I joined as director in November of 1998.

We were in downtown LA (what’s now the ARt’s District), then to Universal CityWalk, back to downtown Grand Hope Park area (by FIDM) for 10 years, then to a 4th and Main St. location for a few years, and then closed for about 5 years (June 2011 – November 2015) for the move to Glendale. We’ve been in our new home almost 3 years already!

What is it about neon art that captivates you and museum curators?

I saw neon being used as an art form in the mid-70s: A neon sculpture of a pair of red lips made in ruby red neon on a pedestal in a Seattle art gallery, and an Antonakos piece by the waterfront, also in Seattle. It struck me as something special, color in its purest form. It was as powerful as seeing the Aurora Borealis or any other natural light phenomenon (lightning, a rainbow).

What made MONA choose the Busy Bee sign? In your world of neon signs, what makes Busy Bee standout / unique?

There is so much handcraft and artistry in its animated design of a bee “busily” flapping its wings and the beautiful hand-painted brush strokes of the bee on the metal can.

Santa Monica artist Dave Quick has been a long-time MONA member and on the first Board of Directors of the museum in 1981 and a kinetic artist himself. Dave curated the exhibit and at his suggestion, we included animated neon sculpture and signs and plasma sculpture.

MONA has historically exhibited kinetic electric sculpture and it was time to revisit that genre after not having done so in a decade or more.

How did you come across Busy Bee? Did the store owners contact you? Vice versa?

Eric Evavold, who used to serve on our Board, had been keeping an eye on the sign and heard through the neon grapevine that the business was closing. So he did the legwork and contacted the owner and inquired about the sign. He’s been a devoted member in helping us with procuring historic signs. It’s usually a long protracted pursuit, and then when the sign is ready to come down, it becomes a frantic deadline. It’s a mixture of sadness to see a long-time sign leave its home — and excitement– to know that we will restore and relight the sign and give it a new home and life.

This is the 2nd sign you’ve received from Santa Monica, correct? (Tinder Box being the first.)

Yes, Eric Evavold also helped us procure that one. 

Are there other signs in Santa Monica that someday may be interesting to the museum?

We missed the Arby’s sign that came down a while ago. We expressed an interest in it but it disappeared. Maybe a private collector got it?

How has Busy Bee responded in regards to MONA preserving their little piece of local history?

I think the owner was thrilled. They’re out of state, so they haven’t visited to see it here yet. Usually, they wouldn’t follow through with a donation unless they had a love of the sign themselves.

We had another sign we were donated and when the owner visited, he teared up when he saw all of our visitors taking selfies and posing in front of his sign. He had no idea that the sign would bring so much joy to people.

Lastly, could you describe the restoration process to an older sign like this?

Every sign poses a different restoration challenge.

Some signs, such as the Busy Bee, have enough remnant of the original hand painting on it that we didn’t repaint it. We also salvaged some of the original glass on it and only added new glass where we had to. The original bending was so beautiful we wanted to reuse the original tubes. It’s a good example of seeing how the neon colors age. In areas where we added new glass, it’s a brighter yellow than the original yellow glass.

If we do decide to paint a sign, we have to do a lot of research to find what it looked like originally. Sign painters had a certain palette of colors back then, so we use a combination of what colors existed in the sign industry, what evidence of paint color remains on the sign, and then go from there.

The bending of the neon tubing requires yet another set of skilled craftspeople and knowledge of what colors of neon tubing existed in the era of the sign.

Without good neon benders, we wouldn’t be able to restore these signs. It’s one of the reasons we moved to Glendale — as we were able to set up a neon fabricating shop on the premises for teaching this unique and dying craft. We need a new generation of neon benders to keep the craft alive.

And last but not least, there’s the installer — the person who puts the neon glass units onto the sign and does the electrical wiring of it on the inside of the sign. It’s not rocket science, but every sign’s wiring is different. Animated signs are more complicated than non-animated signs, but ALL signs that are old are challenging because they contain layers of repairs and old components on the inside of the metal cans. It is tedious and painstaking work.

The KINETIC ENERGY: Art that Won’t Sit Still opening reception takes place Saturday, September 22, 7:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. at the Museum of Neon Art, 216 S Brand Blvd, Glendale, CA 91204.

For more information, visit neonmona.org


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