Sept 2 2006
OF A NEON ERA NEARS AS
HELEN CALLS IT A DAY
much-loved girl on a swing sign may soon be gone if no buyer is
found for a store that's become a Vancouver institution
half a century, a little neon girl has been swinging over the
sidewalk in North Burnaby, advertising Helen's Children's Wear.
With her golden neon hair, rose neon dress, white neon legs and
blue neon slippers, she's one of the most charming pop culture
landmarks in the Lower Mainland.
the neon girl's days at 4142 East Hastings may be numbered. At
the age of 86, Helen Arnold has decided to retire. She's trying
to sell the business for $88,800, but if no takers can be found,
she'll close it down and rent out the space to someone else.
opened the store in 1948 in a smaller space down the street. She
moved to the current location in 1957, and decided she needed
a neon sign with some pizzazz.
you're going to be in business, you've got to go all the way,
you know?" she reasons.
in the '50s Vancouver was a neon mecca, with all sorts of elaborate
neon signs. Many of them flashed, but for Helen's Reeve Lehman
of Wallace Neon came up with something unique: a three-part sign
with a moving neon "swing."
Armitage of Sicon Signs (which bought Wallace Neon in the '70s)
says the Helen's sign is nine-foot-six high by nine feet wide.
It was recently repainted and looks as good as new.
a motor and gears inside it that makes it rock back and forth,"
rebuilt it countless times. Our guys always seem to come up with
different methods on how it should work. When one fails they figure
out some other way to do it."
has adapted over the years as well. In the early days, she used
to make her children's clothes herself.
used to take in people's clothes and make them over," she relates.
men's suits, we'd make into little boys suits or pants. But I
found it wasn't worth it, and gradually got into just buying merchandise
and selling it. I always liked quality merchandise. I don't like
poor quality, so I always bought high-quality brand names."
may be why she was able to stay in business for over half a century.
At Helen's you can get kids' T-shirts and blue jeans, but you
can also buy the coolest pint-sized gowns and tuxedos you'll ever
see in your life.
selection of dresses and clothing is unbelievable," says Andrea
Kagan, who went to the store recently with daughter Ulyana and
can't find things like this in Wal-Mart. Look at the beautiful
dresses! We know every time we come here when we're looking for
something special we'll find it. Great size selection, and beautiful,
store stock is modern, but in many ways Helen's feels like a store
from another time. The mannequins in the front window are just
classic, with curly hair and big eyelashes that look straight
out of the 1940s.
because that's when many of them were made. Most were done by
Helen's mother, Nettie.
mother used to work for Kings on Powell street years ago, a display
place," says Helen, who didn't have any kids herself.
made all that stuff for me by hand. The babies, she made the cast
and the moulds for them. There's three of them in there. [There's]
a papier mache stork.
had people that have seen the sign for the retirement sale, and
they've been phoning wanting to know if they can buy some of the
[mannequins]. I don't know if I would sell them or not, I just
don't know yet. I might take some of them home and keep them."
Traynor's store mannequins are fabulous, but her most startling
creation is stored away at Helen's home: a series of three foot-long
"pinup dolls" she made during the Second World War.
pinup dolls are just that; voluptuous, scantily clad female figurines
that Nettie sold for $4 or $5 to servicemen going overseas. One
pinup is posed laying down, her head reclining on her right arm
while her left arm suggestively tugs at her raised ankle. The
risque bits are covered by a slinky bikini.
boys carried them in their duffel bags during the war as a girlfriend,"
says Helen's husband Elgin.
has about 100 dolls in her collection at home. Elgin, meanwhile,
collected cars. At one point he had nine Lincolns, although now
he's whittled it down to three.
a man's car," he replies.
87, also owns a legendary business with a much-loved neon sign,
Oasis Car Wash (two locations, Kingsway in Vancouver and Marine
Drive in North Van). Elgin is something of a business wiz: at
one point he owned 14 companies, along with lots of real estate.
In the 1950s, he bought the building that Helen's is housed in
couple recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.
met roller skating," says Helen.
used to be a skate cop at Rollerball on Howe street," Elgin explains.
skated backwards to keep the crowd from going too fast, and she
started to skate there."
has been good to the Arnolds, who live in an ultra-groovy modern
home that Elgin designed and built in 1960 on the North Shore
waterfront. But Helen has to use a walker these days and doesn't
make it to the store all that often, so she has finally decided
to retire. She hopes to find a buyer, but if she can't, she'll
sell everything off to the public. She's already holding a retirement
sale, offering many items at 20 to 70 per cent off.
thing that isn't for sale is the Helen's neon sign, which is owned
by Sicon. Helen rents it for $400 per month, up from $55 per month
in 1957. If Helen's closes, the sign will probably end up at Sicon's
offices or in the neon collection of the Vancouver Museum.
Helen's does close, area resident Andrea Kagan says it'll be the
end of an era.
bought our Christening gowns here and our suits and our dressy-dresses,"
says Kagan, "[but] most of all we like to come see the girl on
the swing. We're going to miss her on Hastings. She's our landmark."