They flashed and illuminated the Las Vegas skyline for years. They told weary travelers to stop and get some rest. They pointed hungry patrons to grab a bite. They lured eager gamblers to spend their hard earned money. There’s nothing more mesmerizing than a bright neon sign to tantalize your eyes and possibly make you do things you didn’t plan to do. But, at one point, the hotel closes, the restaurant shuts down, or the decrepit casino implodes, making way for something more modern, something new. So where do these iconic signs go to die?
Fortunately not all are left for scrap and destroyed. Many headed to a boneyard owned by Young Electric Sign Company, or Yesco, the maker of most of the signs. As the burning Vegas sun began to take it’s toll on the old marquees, the Allied Arts Council of Southern Nevada and City of Las Vegas formed a partnership and founded the Neon Museum, a resting place for these historic signs that tell much more than what is written on them.
I’ve been eager to visit the Neon Boneyard (as it is sometimes referred to) for some time now. Having always been a fan of neon signs and marquees, when I first spotted pictures on random blogs and sites on the internet, I wanted to go. On a recent road trip through Arizona and Nevada I got my chance. I had the impression that the experience of exploring the boneyard was quite adventurous, with out much formal guidance. I was a bit disappointed when I learned it was more regimented, but to my surprise, I was quite impressed with our tour and guide. The wealth of information and details about each sign made my Vegas experience come alive!
Each sign offers a glimpse into Las Vegas’ past. It tells a story of what era in history it was lit up. It tells stories of people, performers, and travelers who gazed upon it. It tells stories of different eras of design styles, typography and imagery. Yes, all this in one rusted, rickety sign!
We were told stories of signs that were shining during prohibition times – not a martini glass to be found. We heard about the Rat Pack, and saw the signs of the places they performed. We learned about the issues of segregation in Vegas, and how some performers couldn’t stay with others just because of the color of their skin. We saw retro typefaces in all their glory, from wild western fonts to Googie inspired space age scripts. We learned of the artists who created the signs, and enjoyed hearing how neon technology and the lighting of the signs has changed, and/or remained the same. We also heard stories from the crowd. How one sign was memorable to them, or how another sparked a tale of an all night Vegas adventure.
The museum is also spearheading some wonderful projects to bring some of these signs back to life. Restoring dilapidated neon to working order is no small feat, but they have done this to a few marquees. They are also collaborating with the Las Vegas Signs Project in restoring unique signs and displaying them along Las Vegas Boulevard. Outside the museum is the slipper from the Silver Slipper, and just down the road is a sign from a hotel where Elvis once slept.
It’s clear after our visit that the Neon Museum is much more than just a boneyard of rusty signs. Baked in the Vegas sun, these icons of different eras will not fade away. The neon may not glow and the lights may never turn on again, but their history is still waiting to be heard for anyone who cares to look and listen.