Monday, January 13, 2014

Havana Neon

Last week's amazing Polar Vortex struck me as an opportune time to break out this post, which I've been sitting on for a while.  In fact, it's been exactly a year since I jetted down to Havana.  A pretty good time of year to head south from New York, no doubt, but it was the neon, not the warmer climes, that I was after.

Havana Neon, circa 1930.  (Claude Neon News, c. 1930 / NYPL)

We all know about Cuba's fleet of ancient American cars.  What I wondered was what might remain of Havana's old neon signs.  A little bit Paris, a little bit Vegas, and a lot South Beach, Havana was a city that positively glittered with neon before the Cuban revolution in 1959.  But how would all of that commercial glitz fare under communist rule?

Sloppy Joe's neon.  (Claude Neon News, c. 1930 / NYPL)

As I researched the neon book, articles on Havana Neon kept cropping up old trade publications, including one feature in the Claude Neon News showing the island capital bathed in neon in the early 1930s.  From little neonitos packed into the narrow streets of Habana Vieja to huge rooftop spectaculars that beamed out over the Caribbean, Havana must have had some of the busiest sign shops in the world. 
"New Schenley Spectacular in Havana" - rooftop spectaculars beamed out over the Malecon.  From Signs of the Times Magazine, July 1947. (ST Media Group, used with permission.)  

Of course, all of that changed after 1959.  Those big roof signs, most of them advertising the fruits of American capitalism (such as can still be seen rolling down the calles of Cuba today) are long gone now.  But Havana's culture of neon was so firmly entrenched that it survived the island's not-so-smooth transition to a socialist economy.  

The narrow streets of Habana Vieja were literally jammed with neon signs, as seen over Burl Ives' shoulder in this screen cap from the 1959 film "Our Man in Havana."

One need look no further than the monumental neon-lit figure of Che Guevara that has presided over Plaza de la Revolución since the late 1960s.  Some establishments that were renamed for political reasons in the 1960s (especially Havana's many movie houses) had their new names emblazoned in neon.  So while precious little survives of Havana's once resplendent neon streetscape, there is more than one might think.

"Bomba Atomica," a manufacturer of water pumps and coffee machines.  Signs of the Times, September 1954.  (ST Media Group, used with permission.)

A few signs have even been preserved (or at least replicated), such as those at the historic Floridita and Sloppy Joe's bars in Habana Vieja.  But like most other parts of the world, the general trend is definitely not in neon's favor.  Signs that had were still there within a year of my visit had vanished by the I got there.  Some of them, like that of the old Hotel New York, had just crumbled.  Others simply no longer light up.  And a handful have even been retrofitted with LEDs.

Signs of the Times Magazine, September 1954.  This article featured the work of sign companies Anuncios Cape, Anunciadora Opalina and Luz Neon. (ST Media Group, used with permission.)

So take a pretend break from this wild winter and head down south where the neon was fine and the weather still is.  If this isn't enough to thaw you out, please also check out other photos from my Havana trip at my flickr page.


Havana is teeming with amazing old movie theaters, most of them still functioning.  Many, like the Yara, received new, nationalist-themed names after 1959.  You'll find them interspersed in the photos below.

Cine Yara (ex-Teatro Warner Radiocentro) / Calle L 363, Vedado, Havana

The Castro government imposed new names on many of Havana's main thoroughfares as well.  These include Avenida de Galiano, a main commercial strip that straddles the border between Habana Vieja - the city's historic core - and Centro, the "new" downtown developed around the last turn of the century.  A number of neon relics still linger here.   

La Internacional / Avenida de Galiano, Centro, Havana

Fin de Siglo / Avenida de Galiano, Centro, Havana

El Palacio de las Novias / Avenida de Galiano, Centro, Havana

Gentry, Avenida de Galiano / Centro, Havana

El Gallo, Avenida de Galiano / Centro, Havana

One of the finest art deco theaters you'll find anywhere in the world, the Teatro América was Havana's answer to Radio City Music Hall. 

Teatro America / Avenida de Galiano 253, Havana

Hotel Lincoln, Avenida de Galiano, Centro, Havana

La Oasis, Paseo del Prado, Centro, Havana

El Megano (ex-Cine Capri) / Calle Industria 416, Havana

Cine Payret / Paseo de Martí, Prado 503 - 513, Habana Vieja, Havana

Restaurante El Baturro, Avenida de Bélgica, Habana Vieja, Havana

Puerto de Sagua, Avenida de Bélgica, Habana Vieja, Habana

La Pina de Plata, Calle Obispo, Habana Vieja, Havana

Hemingway's old hangout, the Floridita, bills itself as the "cradle of the daiquiri."  It's a complete tourist trap now but an obligatory stop-off nonetheless, especially for its neon.   

El Floridita / Calle Obispo at Avenida de Bélgica, Habana Vieja, Havana

La Gran Via / Calle Neptuno (?), Centro, Havana

Hotel Plaza Havana / Ignacio Agramonte No. 267, Habana Vieja, Havana

Restaurante Cafeteria Wakamba / Calle O btwn Calles 23 & 25, Vedado, Havana

I made some of my favorite finds on the south side of Centro, an off-the-beaten-path tangle of old streets near the big railroad yard behind Havana's Estación Central, 

Las Americas Ferreteria / Calle Aguila (?), Centro, Havana

La Industrial, Avenida Máximo Gómez / Centro, Havana

El Mundo de Las Maravillas / Calle Monte, Centro, Havana

Cine Favorito / Belascoain 809, Havana

Cine Cuba / Reina (?), Centro, Havana
Casa Bella / Belascoain, Havana

The Vedado district's great old Riviera theater seems to have lit up in the not too distant past, but like many others it was out cold by the time I got there.

Cine Riviera / Calle 23 No 507, Vedado, Havana

La Pelota / Calle 23 a Calle 12, Havana

Cafeteria 12 / Calle 23 a Calle 12, Havana

Restaurante Varsovia / Calle 12, Vedado, Havana

Teatro Mella (ex-Teatro Rodi), Linea 657, Vedado, Havana 

Hotel Sevilla / Animas, Habana Vieja, Havana

Back in Habana Vieja, Sloppy Joe's bar - perhaps best known for its role in Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana" - was in the midst of a heavy-handed embalming during my visit, which apparently included a facsimile of its old sign.  Compare the repro with the original (above).

Sloppy Joe's / Zulueta 252, Habana Vieja, Havana

Shades of South Beach are clear in evidence at Meyer Lansky's Hotel Habana Riviera, built just before the Revolution.  A finer specimen of late '50s hotel architecture you'll find almost nowhere.

Hotel Habana Riviera / Paseo y Malecon, Vedado, Havana

Cine 23 y 12 / Calle 23 No. 1212, Vedado, Havana

Somewhat farther afield in Miramar, the massive Karl Marx was the more (or less?) colorful Blanquita before 1959.

Teatro Karl Marx (ex-Teatro Blanquita) / Avenida 1ra No. 804, Havana

Cine Milan (La Rampa) / Calle 23 (La Rampa), Vedado, Havana

Bar Cafeteria La Red / Calle 19 No. 151, Vedado, Havana

Taken from the window of a '48 Dodge: the Cosmos-ex-San Carlos, at Calle 60. 

Cine Cosmos (ex-Cine San Carlos) / Avenida 19 at Calle 60, Havana

Scattered around town, some newer signs suggest that Havana's neon trade is still alive, if not exactly flourishing:

El Balcon del Eden Bar Restaurante / Calle K No. 361, Vedado, Havana

Restaurante de Cameron / Linea 753, Vedado, Havana
But here as everywhere, LEDs are coming.  Back where we started, next to the Cine Yara, the big roof sign of the Hotel Habana Libre is probably Havana's most prominent LED retrofit.

Hotel Habana Libre / Calle 23 at Calle L, Havana

The missing S and R reveal that the nearby Salon Rojo, too, has been LED-ed.

Salon Rojo / Calle 21 betw Calle O and Calle N, Vedado, Havana

Back in Habana Vieja, the Hotel Inglaterra sign had been converted within the year prior to my visit.

Hotel Inglaterra, Paseo de Martí 416, Centro, Havana

Los Amigos Paladar / Calle M No 253, Vedado, Havana

And perhaps the most startling convert of all:

Comandante Ernesto 'Che' Guevara: 'Hasta La Victoria Siempre' / Plaza de la Revolución

El Comandante himself, right on the Plaza de la Revolución. The uniformed man with the big gun standing in Che's shadow wash't keen on letting me look behind Che's reverse channels.  But peeking out from behind them, a stray diode confirms that Che and Castro's Cuba have outlived the neon century.

Che's stray LED. (T. Rinaldi)


Check out my other photos from Havana over at flickr.  They're sorted into these galleries:

•  Assorted
•  Cars
•  People
•  Signs
•  Neon
•  Terrazzo


"Claude Neon Bright Spots in Beautiful Havana."  Claude Neon News, c. 1930
"New Schenley Spectacular in Havana." Signs of the Times Magazine, July 1947
"Signs - The Cuban Way."  Signs of the Times Magazine, September 1954.


  1. Hi Mr Rinaldi, I enjoyed reading about the neon signs in Havana. I happen to have some interesting images of neon signs from Havana in the 1950s.Recently I wrote a short piece on how the signs disappeared little by little. All these neon signs were important to me as the type of child that used to read everything he saw. It would be my pleasure to share with you the info I have. Cordially, Alfred

  2. Dear Alfred - thanks for the comment. I would love to see the images you described. You can reach me at rinaldit2 [at] gmail [.] com