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Betty Willis (1923-2015)

Designed iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign

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Betty Willis passed away in her daughter’s Overton, NV home on April 19 at age 91.
Sign-industry veterans may not be as familiar with Willis’ legacy as they are with John Lamb, Kirk Brimley and many other leaders who helped grow and mold our business, but her contribution to Las Vegas culture – which vies with NYC as the U.S. city with the most dynamic signage – is unmistakable. In 1959, as a Western Neon employee, Willis designed the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign that stands adjacent to I-15 and serves as a key Sin City gateway.
In his memorial of Willis in the Los Angeles Times, David Colker wrote, “In a city where hotels, lounge acts and architectural styles come and go, this Midcentury Modern sign – with an exaggerated diamond shape that recalls Googie-style coffee shops of that era – has, if anything, grown more popular in recent years.”
The Times article also noted that, in 2008, Clark County spent $400,000 – approximately 100 times the cost of the original sign – to construct a parking lot to give motorists who wish to take a photo of the sign a convenient, safe place to park (lest they risk life and limb running into the highway to take a shot in the median).
According to the Times, the sign originated from an effort by casino owners and civic leaders to erect a “Welcome” sign – a common step taken by many municipalities shortly after World War II – with Vegas-style panache. In a 2005 New York Times article, Willis said, “We thought the town was fabulous, so we added the word.”
The sign features handpainted, capital letters that spell out “Welcome,” with a neon outline backed by white circles that depict silver dollars. Yellow bulbs perform a chasing sequence around the sign’s perimeter.
Today, the Young Electric Sign Co. (YESCO) owns the sign, and leases it to the city.
Her portfolio also included a sign for Las Vegas’ Moulin Rouge Hotel, which was Las Vegas’ first racially integrated casino. However, after only a few months of operation after its 1955 opening, the Moulin Rouge was shuttered (speculation abounds: competing Strip casino owners, the Mafia and others were cited as potential culprits in a Smithsonian article). As such, the Welcome to Las Vegas sign still stands tall as Willis’ enduring legacy to her native city.
 

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