The 1940’s advertising slogan “If you can’t do it at home, come to Nevada” was revitalized by Las Vegas in 2003 as “What happens here, stays here,” a tag line that continues to lure visitors to the spellbinding splendor of Sin City. This haunt in the desert is as notorious for tacit escapades as it is for spectacular, super-sized neon signs.
Neon lighting was invented in Paris in 1910, and by 1928 its gaseous glow began lighting up Las Vegas not long before gambling, and easy marital transactions began to attract tourists. As highways improved and automobile travel increased, motels offered travelers affordable accommodation and used neon tubing to spruce up their signs and declare their availability. Other independent businesses, like wedding chapels, dry cleaners, dairies, and florists, also put the new technology to good use. But these glowing landmarks fell victim to the wrecking ball over the years, as casino after casino succumbed to shifting design and technology trends aimed at outshining the competition, and attracting more tourists from a widening demographic.
During the 1970s, several historic preservation groups, determined to chronicle the rise and fall of the city’s colorful, well-lit past, stepped forward to rescue decommissioned signs. This led to the formation of The Neon Museum in 1996, a two-acre site comprised of the Neon Boneyard, an outdoor display of more than 200 retired signs; the Neon Boneyard North Gallery, a staging area circumscribed by 60 more signs, which the museum rents out for photo shoots, weddings, and special events; and a series of small-scale signs that were restored and installed along the median strip of Las Vegas Boulevard.
In the boneyard, a collage of chipped, scratched, and faded pieces and parts forms the backdrop for enlightening tours by guides who recount nostalgic tales of infamous gamblers, gangsters, and entertainers—the innovative architects and sign designers who concocted the giant markers and the companies that fabricated and installed them weave in and out of the tour’s narrative.
Amid random extracted letters in a sweep of styles and materials, visitors imagine re-assembled “spectaculars,”the name for the largest, most elaborate of the super signs. Sections of these spectaculars, including gigantic objects, reflect the shift in themes from Old West frontier town, to California modern, to exotic fantasy concepts, like Dan Edwards’ 1976 Aladdin genie lamp, and Ben Mitchum’s 30-foot tall fiberglass sultan that once perched on the roof of the Dunes.
Among the most impressive spectaculars were the towering roadside signs attached to giant pylons that beckoned travelers as they made their way along highway 91 toward the Strip. Scaled-down versions ushered drivers into parking lots or under dramatically lit porte cocheres, extended automobile canopies that welcomed guests to the casino lobby. The Frontier, Stardust, and Flamingo were the first to reach these new heights, but when they fell, their iconic signs came to rest in the boneyard.
The Frontier reflected Las Vegas’ early Old West identity, when the city’s slogan was “Still a Frontier Town.” The casino’s name was spelled out in copper and gold, in condensed all cap Egyptian-style letters with exaggerated slab serifs, reminiscent of 19th century French Clarendon wood type. AD-ART’s art director, Bill Clarke, designed Frontier’s stylized “F” logo in 1966, that rotated above a scalloped filigree element inside a 184-foot-tall roadside pylon, all choreographed to turn in sync.
Not to be overshadowed, the Stardust followed suit with a 188-foot super-pylon, designed in 1968 by AD-ART’s Paul Miller. Known as the “Queen of the Strip” the spectacular featured a two-story Stardust logo on a magenta field, covered with blue-and-purple four-pointed stars, that twinkled in an animated sequence of incandescent lamps and neon. The angular letters of the space-age logo were based on Wayne’s 1958 monumental façade that spelled out “Stardust” in 11,000 flashing bulbs and 7,000 feet of neon tubing. In 1991, the logo lost its conceptual relevance when the casino “modernized” and the proprietary space-age letters were replaced by a more common sans serif type (which looks like Futura to me).
The Flamingo hotel and casino, originally named after Virginia Hill, Bugsy Siegel’s long-legged, red-headed girlfriend, houses live flamingos in a garden courtyard. The third resort to open on the Strip, the Flamingo, originally opened in 1946, is the oldest casino still in operation. In 1968, AD-ART’s Bill Clarke designed a spectacular 130-foot pylon with pink-and-orange plumes that fanned out at the top. A pedestrian-oriented entrance sign designed by Raul Rodriguez and fabricated by Heath and Company in 1976 features an animated three-dimensional bouquet of colorful neon flamingo feathers that opens and closes. Open-channeled letters filled with bulbs define the casual, flowing script of the Flamingo logo, fashioned after Brush Script.
Another noteworthy spectacular salvaged by the museum is the landmark sign of the Moulin Rouge, the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas, which opened and closed in 1955. The sign features graceful French-style script designed by Betty Willis, one of the few women working in the field at the time. In 1959, Willis designed what’s considered to be the town’s most famous sign, “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” which still stands at the southern end of the Strip.
The slogan “What happens here, stays here” rings true to the museum’s mission to collect, preserve, study, and exhibit iconic Las Vegas neon signs, to preserve their memory, and restore their glow to the City of Lights. The Neon Museum is in and of itself a spectacular.