4142 Hastings St.
Burnaby BC
Closed in 2007

Helen Arnold opened Helen's Children's Wear shop in the building next door to the old Municipal offices in 1948. In 1955, when Burnaby moved out, she moved into the vacated building. As part of the renovations, Helen enlisted the assitance of good friend Jimmy Wallace, owner of Vancouver's Wallace Neon Sign Company, to create a new sign for her expanded business. One of the company's designers, Mr. Reeve, created the swinging neon girl which was installed in 1956. It immediately became a landmark on Hastings Street.. In modern times the sign's design fame has spread far and wide as one of the best examples of kinetic neon art in North America and is included as a destination on local neon tours.



Heights getting in the swing
City council pleased to see the return of the landmark 'swinging girl' sign

Christina Myers
Burnaby Now

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Heights is swinging once again.

An icon in the North Burnaby neighbourhood, the neon "swinging girl" sign that marked the location of Helen's Children's Wear for more than 50 years, has been returned to the neighbourhood - with a twist.

It now reads "Heights" rather than "Helen's" - and the city is adding it to its community heritage register so that it is a protected heritage landmark.

"It is functioning now, ... and there will be an event to flip the switch and turn the neon back on in the Heights," said Coun. Colleen Jordan, who chairs the community heritage committee.

Jordan told council that the project was quite a bit of work and that it was a unique circumstance for a sign to be receiving heritage designation.

The project began in 2007 when the city entered into negotiations with Helen Arnold, the owner of Helen's Children's Wear, to acquire the sign - which is considered to be a widely recognized landmark in the city.

The sign was then updated by Sicon Signs in Vancouver, and it has been returned to the street, now hanging from a free-standing pole adjacent to its original location since late January.

The lettering on the sign was done in the same style as the original.

The ongoing care and maintenance of the sign will be carried out jointly by the city and the Heights Merchants' Association.

The swinging girl herself will be named Helen, in honour of Helen Arnold.

Jordan said a public notice would be issued in advance of the official ceremony marking the sign's return.

© Burnaby Now 2010



John Mackie  Sept 2 2006

The 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

For 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.

Alas, 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.

Helen 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.

"If you're going to be in business, you've got to go all the way, you know?" she reasons.

Back 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."

Tom 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.

"There's a motor and gears inside it that makes it rock back and forth," he says.

"We've 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."

Helen has adapted over the years as well. In the early days, she used to make her children's clothes herself.

"We used to take in people's clothes and make them over," she relates.

"Like 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."

This 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.

"The selection of dresses and clothing is unbelievable," says Andrea Kagan, who went to the store recently with daughter Ulyana and son Yurdan.

"You 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, quality pieces."

The 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.

That's because that's when many of them were made. Most were done by Helen's mother, Nettie.

"My mother used to work for Kings on Powell street years ago, a display place," says Helen, who didn't have any kids herself.

"She 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.

"We've 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."

Nettie 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.

The 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.

"The boys carried them in their duffel bags during the war as a girlfriend," says Helen's husband Elgin.

Helen 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.

Why Lincolns?

"They're a man's car," he replies.

Elgin, 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 for $2500.

The couple recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.

"We met roller skating," says Helen.

"I used to be a skate cop at Rollerball on Howe street," Elgin explains.

"You skated backwards to keep the crowd from going too fast, and she started to skate there."

Life 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.

One 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.

If Helen's does close, area resident Andrea Kagan says it'll be the end of an era.

"We 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."


All photos copyright © Christian Dahlberg except where stated otherwise. All rights reserved.
Vancouver panorama photo © Vancouver Lookout. www.vancouverlookout.com