Whose bright idea? Las Vegas' Neon Museum
Flashy casinos, jackpots and showgirls; the images of Las Vegas that come to mind have one thing in common -- they are invariably lit by the hundreds of neon signs that make the city glow.
The city's newly-opened Neon Museum pays some sort of homage to this beacon to gamblers in the Nevada desert.
Home to more than 150 neon signs dating from the 1930s to today, it took Bill Marion, the chair of the Neon Museum, 15 years to collect and plan the exhibition.
"The signs are a visual history of Las Vegas," says Marion. "Each sign has a unique story behind it -- about casino bosses and owners who built the city, about the mob figures who associated with them, about the entertainers who used to perform here."
The museum also works with the City of Las Vegas on the Las Vegas Signs Project, to restore and install vintage signs along Las Vegas Boulevard between Sahara and Washington Avenues.
Several signs are on display already and more will be added gradually.
At the moment, the museum tours only take place during the day. But night tours will start soon.
"Dramatic lighting is added throughout the Neon Boneyard that will illuminate the signs at night," says Marion. "We will be starting those tours before the end of the year."
We talked to Marion about some of the neon signs.
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Oldest sign: Green Shack
Bill Marion: "It was designed sometime in the 1930s and was used for a restaurant that opened to serve the men who were working on the Hoover Dam.
"It’s a classic example of early neon sign design. In the 1930s and 1940s, as highways began connecting cities and America’s love affair with the car began, a glowing neon sign was the perfect way to draw weary travelers to your door.
"So early neon signs were very straightforward and told you exactly what the building they were attached to offered: 'Gas,' 'Lodging,' or in the case of the Green Shack, 'Steak, Chicken and Cocktails.'"
Strangest sign: Treasure Island's skull
Marion: "The weirdest is probably the skull from Treasure Island. It’s enormous -- nine meters high by four meters wide.
"It’s so big, we had to lie it down flat so it faces the sky. If you look us up on Google Earth, you’ll see the skull looking back at you.
"It also represents a kind of odd time in Las Vegas’ recent past. The Treasure Island was built in 1993 when hotel casinos along the Strip experimented with a more 'family-friendly' approach to marketing.
"But the concept didn’t work, so everyone shifted their focus back to adult-themed entertainment.
"The skull we have is one of two that were featured on their main marquee, but it was only up for about 10 years. Now, the hotel is called the TI, and they have a more adult-themed sirens show instead of a pirate ship battle."
Biggest sign: Stardust
Marion: "The biggest sign is the Stardust -- 66 meters long and 11 meters high with over 518 meters of neon tubing.
"It was, at one time, the largest neon sign in the world. It was designed by Kermit Wayne and was created to help hide the building. The architecture of the building was so plain and unattractive, they covered the entire front of the building with an enormous neon sign."
Fanciest sign: Moulin Rouge
Marion: "In terms of elegant or fancy signs, the Moulin Rouge is stunning.
"The Moulin Rouge opened in 1955 and was significant because it was the first racially integrated hotel casino in the state.
"The sign was designed by Betty Willis -- the same woman who designed the city’s most famous sign ever, the 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas' sign.
"The sign design itself is fairly simple: it’s just the words 'Moulin Rouge' written in an elegant, pinkish red, French-inspired font. Only it’s not a font -- Betty couldn’t find one she liked enough to use, so she designed it herself. It’s so simple, but perfect."
A 45-minute tour of the Neon Boneyard runs every half hour from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday to Saturday. Tickets are US$18 for adults, US$12 for students, senior citizens, veterans and Nevada residents, free for children under six. Visitors are advised to purchase the tickets in advance through the website.
The Visitor Center is open Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; 770 Las Vegas Blvd. North, Las Vegas, NV 89101; United States; www.neonmuseum.org