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A Look Back at Las Vegas Neon

A town defined by its luminous-tube signage…



Las Vegas may have America’s largest collection of spectacular neon. If not the largest, it’s certainly the most amazing. Some remain in the streets; many more dormant examples are lovingly preserved, restored, and occasionally electrified. From a neon-art connoisseur’s point of view, the entire city can be considered a series of public art galleries, each preserving an historic neon spectacular.
Neon’s heyday has passed, yet respect for its influence remains, primarily through sincere efforts to keep neon in both a nostalgic and functioning role. Neon’s role in a revitalization 20 years ago continues today. Efforts to expand neon in outdoor galleries are accelerating. Seemingly, the efforts to preserve it are now commensurate to the rate with which LEDs have replaced it.

Las Vegas Neon Museum
Las Vegas hotels’ neon signage was recognized by the city and all the local sign companies as part of the city’s heritage. Thus, all saved neon signage was gathered together and known affectionately as the Neon Boneyard. In 1996, the Las Vegas Neon Museum was created to preserve and exhibit neon signage previously installed throughout Las Vegas. The Neon Museum’s incarnation included acquiring and managing the Neon Boneyard.
“Currently (2015), the Neon Museum has approximately 200 neon signs in its collection,” says executive director Danielle Kelly, “which includes everything from local retail signage to parts of the more dramatic monumental signage of The Strip. Of that collection, a few signs have been restored and electrified. Some are lit up within the museum’s outdoor, neon-sign galleries, and others are mounted on pedestals and exhibited as public art all along Las Vegas Blvd. as it passes the Neon Museum. To date, we have nine functioning neon signs exhibited outdoors, including the Ruby Slipper, Bow & Arrow Motel, Hacienda Horse & Rider and the Lucky Cuss motel. We have plans within the year to expand this with an electrified, neon-sign collection that reaches from the museum all the way to The Strip.”
Curiosity about artistic and nostalgic neon is thriving. As Kelly observed, “In 2014, we received roughly 85,000 visitors. Our museum guests represent a broad range of interests, including international tourists who want more contact with Las Vegas history, convention attendees looking for something different, architects, advertising academics and other sign designers.”
Although other lighting processes – incandescent, fluorescent and LEDs – illuminate signage and lessen neon’s impact on sign design, it’s the neon lighting, Kelly says, that has truly inspired its viewers and designers.
“Neon lighting is very evocative and alluring, and it has a very aesthetic appeal to its designers and users. It’s a very warm light, and its illumination has a certain intimacy. It’s a very playful medium that is flexible [literally] in how it can be designed.”

Fremont East business district
Further promotion of Las Vegas neon’s heritage can be found off-Strip within the Fremont East District of what is now downtown Las Vegas. Whereas that area had been a Las Vegas focal point, inevitably, the neon migrated from Fremont’s “Glitter Gulch” outwards to the Strip and all the major hotel/casinos on Las Vegas Blvd.
A 1994 counter-measure spawned the Fremont Street Experience. Five blocks of that street were transformed into a pedestrian mall, complete with a spectacular, equally long, video-enhanced canopy that covered it (see ST, January 1996, p. 132). Its monumental neon spectaculars included Vegas Vic (YESCO – 1951) and Vegas Vickie (Ad-Art) – famous in their day and still today. Both were saved and continue to shine under the Fremont Street Experience canopy.
However, the Fremont East District, by the late 1990s, became run down and blighted, according to Richard Atkins, redevelopment officer for the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency. He said strong redevelopment interest focused on restoring that historic part of Fremont East to its original luster.
“The plan was to invigorate that area with a neon-signage, street-beautification project and transform it into a spectacular, independent tourist destination that would become an extension of the Fremont Street Experience,” he said.
The Redevelopment Agency commissioned Selbert Perkins Design (Playa del Rey, CA) an international, environmental-design firm, to develop a series of median-based, spectacular-neon pedestals as homage to the glory of Fremont East’s original Glitter Gulch. Altogether, five illuminated pedestals were created (four were neon-based, and one, the Ruby Slipper, featured LEDs and incandescent bulb lighting).
All signs were fabricated and installed by Fluoresco Lighting & Signs (Tucson, AZ), in 2007 along three blocks of Fremont East. The neon signage included a double-faced, gateway sign titled Fremont East and a series of separate neon signs, including Oscar’s Martini (partly filled martini glass), Viva Vegas (an iconic vintage Vegas sign), Lucky Lady (a dancing showgirl) and the previously mentioned Ruby Slipper. In a nod to modern technology, some LEDS were used within each neon sign for “ease of maintenance and energy savings.”
“With the beautification signage in place, a direct revitalization occurred,” said Atkins, “with an increase in new restaurants, retail, cafes and bars along that part of Fremont East. The neon homage created a distinctive, entertainment-district draw both for locals and tourists coming from The Strip.” Additionally, a very independent, active series of vintage commercial neon signs, some decades old, blink away with an emphatic artistic presence.
To build on this momentum, Atkins observed, the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency required new Fremont East businesses to include neon lighting in their signage: “We’re probably one of the only areas in the U. S. that encourages abundant use of neon as a sign-design component.” Atkins
also mentioned, future funding permitting, more monumental neon signage could be added to Fremont Street. Ideally, between Fremont East and the Las Vegas Neon Museum, there would be enough neon signage to create a walking tour.
Neon-sign usage may have peaked in Las Vegas, but its influences on Las Vegas architecture will always be remembered, noted Kelly: “Neon lighting may not be used as much today in Las Vegas as it was, but the dynamics of how neon was utilized is still very much in play with all the new signage now coming out all along The Strip. Signs may be using mostly LEDs, but they’re still monumental in design and size, and equally visually dominating all along The Strip.” Atkins noted this new direction, “with all the interest in neon-sign preservation and restoration at the Neon Museum, Fremont East and other possible future sites in Las Vegas, neon’s future has never been brighter.”

Las Vegas’ neon history
Las Vegas’ courtship with neon lighting began less than a decade after neon’s first U. S. appearance in 1920 (the Packard auto-dealership sign in LA). When neon began sprouting up on retail buildings, noted Charles Barnard, former VP and executive art director of local sign-company Ad-Art, “People would drive from miles around to visit, just to look at that neon sign and experience the novelty of it. That effect of attracting people made it perfect for Las Vegas and its interest in finding ways to attract people to the city.”
An early Las Vegas’ neon spectacular was installed at Fremont East’s Boulder Club in 1936 by a new sign firm, Young Electric Sign Co. (YESCO). Neon signage became commonplace for retail, and the hospitality community embraced it more dramatically and creatively. It similarly became infused within the competitive evolution of developing hotel/casinos. Although every major U. S. city utilized neon lighting for conventional retail signage, Las Vegas neon added the dimension of experiential design as it merged architecture, lighting, graphic design and signage into a singular edifice of glowing delight. This convergence, said Barnard, “established Las Vegas neon signage as a unique iconography recognized around the world.”
Neon design transcended, Barnard added, “from being just a series of glowing letters to a more decorative application of neon embellishments of graphic and abstract patterns that appeared on building facades and pylons of many downtown hotel casinos. Buildings such as the Golden Nugget, Lady Luck, Binion’s Horseshoe casino and The Mint all left their neon marks upon the Fremont East skyline. Fremont Street became Glitter Gulch, the pride and passion of Las Vegas’ growing neon skyline.”
Hotel owners and their architects saw neon’s magical glow as the perfect outdoor-lighting format, both as an art form and as visual entertainment:
• Multi-colored and free-form, its tubing could be bent into virtually any shape.
• Its scalability allowed neon facades to exceed 100 ft.
• It could create sequenced animations of people or objects. A galloping horse or endlessly filled martini glass always earned an appreciative smile.
• Its brief, glowing messages were easily read by passing vehicles.

“Neon signs’ peak popularity spanned from the 1940s through the 1960s,” stated Barnard, “with the mid-1960s being the apex of the ‘Golden Era’ of neon signage in Las Vegas. However, from the 1960s onward, backlit plastic signs became the favored signage trend for commercial applications nationwide, and they replaced much of the neon signage. In Las Vegas, Ad Art introduced a new, contemporary ‘graphic look’ in sign spectaculars.”
Historically, a very direct connection links Las Vegas’ evolution as a gaming destination and its use of neon-lighting promotion. For gaming, Las Vegas is all about showmanship. New casinos emerged with streetside promotions of fanciful signage. Las Vegas neon signage became more fantastic, guided by two requirements: the will to make it happen and the financing. The strategy? The more spectacular the signage, the more likely the hotel will attract more visitors.
Although many sign manufacturers contributed to the Las Vegas neon look, most of its jaw-dropping neon spectaculars were commissioned during the 1960s by YESCO, Ad-Art and Federal Heath Sign Co., who often bid against each other.
In 1953, the Flamingo hotel completed its Champaign Cylinder, an 80-ft. circular tower completely covered in neon. A neon arms race ensued; other hotels created their successively taller towers and pylons with a distinct neon look. By the late 1960s, neon facades and towers had more than doubled that height. In 1968, Ad-Art completed the Stardust star-cloud façade on a 188-ft. building wall. Barnard said, during that era, the city could claim at least five of the six world’s tallest electric signs.
By the mid-1960s, neon one-upsmanship was in full swing all over The Strip. In his 1963 Esquire article, Tom Wolfe eloquently exclaimed, “In Las Vegas, no far-seeing entrepreneurs buy a sign to fit the building they own. Instead, they rebuild the building to fit the sign.”
Furthermore, Wolfe proclaimed, “Las Vegas is the only city in the world whose skyline [in the 1960s] is made up of neither buildings [as in NYC] nor trees [Wilbraham, MA], but signs. One can look at Las Vegas from a mile away and only see signs … towering, revolving and oscillating.”
Did the hotel community buy into this idea? Literally, yes. Each succeeding Las Vegas hotel’s building frontage became a canvas for very expansive and exquisite neon designs. Neon was measured less in lumens and more in acreage as it began to cover the entire front of the various hotels with all kinds of geometric shapes and illuminated patterns.
As neon lighting became more entwined with its hotel architecture, its coverage expanded to the porte-cochére sign, the bullnose sign and street-side, pylon, promotional sign. Hotel architectural neon not only glowed, but also chased, scintillated and blinked, transforming hotel towers and pylons into illuminated canvases of excessive neon magnificence.

Neon’s decline
Urban development never ends because Las Vegas is always experimenting with its identity and marketing. Sometimes, it’s with various entertainment themes (from family entertainment to whatever happens in Las Vegas…). Also, themed hotels sported spectacular architectural design (Luxor, Venetian, Excalibur, Paris Las Vegas, etc.). As Las Vegas metamorphosed with the times, many older hotels succumbed to new and different, hospitality venues. Now, it’s high-tech nightclubs and never-ending, new entertainment acts. However, as Michael Green, associate professor of history at University of Nevada-Las Vegas, observes, “As much as Las Vegas changes itself from whatever previous incarnation it was to a more modern version of itself, so does it cling to its history. And much of that history is in all its old neon signage that was the frontage of all those no-longer-existing older hotels.”
“By 1989, extravagant Las Vegas neon signage was becoming ‘old school’, especially to rising entrepreneurs like Steve Wynn,” stated Barnard, “and hotel operators and their architects began following his lead at the Mirage, seeking a more architectural look in their signs – with little neon – as part of their modernization process.”
Spectaculars were soon replaced with spectacle as The Strip found itself decorated with exploding volcanoes, dancing waters and outdoor, staged, live performances – all free and all literally right outside their respective hotels. Also, as LEDs matured, both as a lighting-design element and as a message-center and video platform, they introduced a new era of sign technology. Currently, LED signage covers almost all recently erected Las Vegas hotel/casinos.
However, some fabulous iconic neon still lights up the Strip daily. For starters, there is the late Betty Willis’ Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas (Western Neon, 1959). There’s the Flamingo’s frontage (YESCO, 1976) with its orange, pink and fuchsia neon feathered wall; the Paris Las Vegas monumental, hot-air balloon with its comprehensive, horizontal and vertical neon piping. In a nod to the 1960s, Circus Circus’ streetside Lucky the Clown pylon continuously smiles at passing vehicles.




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