The Light Savers

It’s no easy task keeping Vegas’ bright heritage off the scrap heap. But the Neon Museum’s on the case.

Once upon a time, in the 1970s to be more precise, a man and woman traveled from Argentina to Las Vegas to get married. They stayed at the Stardust. The atomic-age mushroom-cloud marquee sign captivated their imagination, and they had several photographs taken with it gleaming in the background.

More than 30 years later, the couple’s two grown children came to Las Vegas to retrace their parents’ steps, but the Stardust was long gone. So they turned to the Neon Museum Boneyard, that proud and dusty outpost at the northern edge of downtown, where they found the salvaged pieces of the mighty sign.

“The children had grown up with these photos of Las Vegas all around their house,” says Bill Marion, the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. “They were literally in tears walking through the Boneyard.”

We remember sounds and smells and tastes, but memory is above all a visual medium. The Neon Boneyard is the repository of Las Vegas’ best memories of itself. After 15 years, the museum has about 150 signs in its collection—some 450 sign pieces in all—and is still growing. Many of the signs are on display at the Boneyard, and the museum has also overseen the restoration of the vintage signs that now light up the northern reaches of Las Vegas Boulevard and provide East Fremont with its panache. In many respects, the museum keeps a low profile—drive by and you could mistake it for a junk pile, or miss it altogether. Because tours are by appointment only, the Boneyard maintains a sort of insider mystique—many assume that “not just anyone” can go there. But, more and more, word is getting out that you don’t really know this town until you know the Boneyard.

• • •

Neon lights were not invented here—they date to Paris around 1910—but the story of vacuum tubes filled with neon gas is inextricably bound with the story of Las Vegas. Neon signs and Sin City are like long-lost twins. The signs reflect everything that allowed Las Vegas to rise to prominence. They allowed casinos and hotels to create an unprecedented kind of architectural spectacle—where the sign actually overshadowed the building—with builders trying to outdo one another in scale and wattage and style. But the signs were seen as disposable. They were the easiest things to replace when a casino or hotel needed a face-lift, a new identity.

Ironically, they are also what we tend to miss most. Ask a longtime local what he misses about the Dunes Hotel, which was imploded in 1993, and chances are the first thing he’ll mention is the neon sign, with its strips of woven light snaking up toward a glittering diamond and Moorish lettering. Steve Wynn not only demolished the sign, but made a show out of it.

In the years since, nostalgia seems to have brought a modicum of enlightenment. When the Sahara Hotel, one of the city’s most historic properties, closed its doors in May, many Las Vegans lined up to cart off the goods being auctioned off inside. But the big question was, What happens to the signs? As it turned out, the Neon Museum was already on the case. Museum board member John Nelson worked connections with the Sahara’s owners, Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment, trying to obtain one of the signs. The sharply angled, Moroccan-style lettering of the Sahara marquee—placed on the backs of two camels, and framed beneath a small minaret—was the essence of both the resort and a free-wheeling, exuberant vision of the city. At the end of June, it appeared the negotiations had paid off; SBE announced it was donating a sign from the hotel’s rear porte cochere to the museum. (SBE is not donating the sign that fronts Las Vegas Boulevard.) But in the world of sign preservation, it takes a lot more than a few guys and a pickup truck to take these historic signs apart. It takes time, luck, perseverance and, quite often, money.

No date has been set for the museum to take possession of the sign, and an SBE spokesman says the company is speaking to a few local sign installers about donating their time to move the sign. This is crucial, because the museum, as a nonprofit with limited resources, would have a very tough time pulling together the money to move the sign itself. The museum depends on the generosity of sign donors. “It’s one thing to say yes, you can have the sign,” says Danielle Kelly, the museum’s chief operating officer, “and another thing entirely to get it here.” Which brings us to the guiding truths of the business of saving endangered neon: It’s never easy. And there’s usually some heartbreak along the way.

• • •

Patrick Gaffey was working at the Allied Arts Council of Southern Nevada when the Sands was in the midst of a renovation. It was the mid-’80s. Somebody called from the hotel—they were about to take down the original sign, the one with the box-like grid—did the Arts Council want it? It was historically important.

Signs of the Times

The Neon Museum is in talks to add the Betty Willis-designed Blue Angel Motel sign on Fremont Street to its unofficial “living museum” collection—signs that remain in place throughout the city so visitors can see them in their natural habitat. It’s also set to acquire the letters from the Pioneer sign on the Fremont Street Experience as the Pioneer Club completes a renovation. “That’s exactly the way we’d like to operate,” says Bill Marion, the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. “When a historic property is looking to renovate, they’d think first of the Neon Museum as a wonderful repository for historic signs.”

Coming Soon at the Boneyard

Next spring, when the Neon Museum’s visitors center opens in the restored lobby of La Concha Motel, the Boneyard will be ready for its close-up. La Concha will house the museum’s lobby and check-in area, meeting facilities, an archive and research room, administrative offices and space for special events.

Outside, low lights will be installed for evening tours, a few small signs will be restored and switched on, and the museum is considering creating self-guided audio tours. But the patina of age, time and sweat that permeates the site—its gritty, take-me-or-leave-me charm—will remain unchanged.

Until then, the museum only offers guided tours by appointment Tuesday through Saturday at 821 Las Vegas Blvd. North. Call 387-6366 to schedule, as the tours sell out several weeks in advance. (The museum receives between 11,000 and 14,000 visitors a year.) Minimum tour donation is $15. You can take your camera for personal use, but if you want to shoot the site commercially, you’ll need to schedule a separate time and pay a fee. For more information, visit NeonMuseum.org.

Gaffey knew as much. His dad was captain of room service at the Sands for 10 years in the ’50s and early ’60s. “I said, ‘My God, we don’t have any place to store something like that. I had to turn it down. There was nothing we could do. I felt terrible about it and went on feeling terrible about it for quite some time.”

There had been rumblings about preserving signs in the city since at least the late 1970s or early ’80s, but efforts didn’t get serious until about 1987, when Elizabeth Warren, who ran the Preservation Association of Clark County, asked Gaffey to head up efforts to save signs in the Valley. Still bothered by losing the Sands marquee, he agreed, launching a sign preservation committee at the Arts Council.

Efforts to salvage decommissioned Vegas neon signs began in earnest in the late 1980s. Gaffey and others, including current Neon Museum board president Nancy Deaner and architect Thomas Schoeman, thought of themselves as urban detectives. They combed the town for signs, for clues of signs about to come down. They tried to get to them before they were destroyed, or before private collectors swooped in from California or Japan to buy them.

Among the group’s first rescues was the cocktail glass that still stood on the site of the demolished Red Barn, once the most famous gay bar in town. Two businessmen wanted the sign and were irked that Gaffey beat them to it by a week. In construction and in preservation, it seems, fortune favors the bold. Or the lucky.

The Neon Museum was established in 1996, a year or so after then-Mayor Jan Jones had declared her interest in a sign museum. The sign preservers began to set down some rules. They’d only collect signs from Southern Nevada. They had to have historical merit. They had to be beautifully designed. More signs started coming in: the Nevada Motel sign, Hacienda Horse and Rider, Dot’s Flower Ship, Fifth Street Liquors. A dozen signs in all.

But where to put them? The city let the Arts Council store the signs at a sewage treatment plant near Frenchman Mountain on the east side of the Valley. The Arts Council considered its options for a more permanent location. An artificial island in the middle of the Lakes? The Sunset Park pond?

Finally, the city provided space at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and McWilliams Avenue, and by 2001 the fenced-off site began to fill up with signs. Over the next five years, Young Electric Sign Co. (YESCO) helped bring the collection to critical mass with large donations from its Cameron Street back lot.

The Boneyard maintains good relationships with the sign companies, which will often tip them off if a building is slated for demolition or a sign faces destruction. The majority of the signs have come because the owner has donated them and paid for transportation. When the Apache Motel on Main Street was slated to be demolished to make way for the new City Hall, Kelly immediately looked into acquiring the sign, but her initial efforts went nowhere. Only a Tweet about the building from Strip performer Holly Madison finally brought public attention to the sign—and made the acquisition much easier for Kelly.

• • •

Inevitably, there were failures. Deaner once got wind the sign in front of a downtown record store was coming down, so she drove there with a truck to get the sign. When she arrived, the sign was being crushed and loaded into a dumpster.

Then there was Foxy’s Firehouse, a large deli on Sahara and the Strip, right across the street from the World’s Largest Gift Shop. Foxy’s sported a doozy of a neon sign that wrapped around the entire building. It depicted a flaming slot machine and a fox dragging a firehose around the entire building, trying to douse the fire. When Foxy’s closed in 1988, Gaffey knew the museum had to have the sign—at least some of it. He contacted the owner of the place, who consented to donate the sign. YESCO agreed to take it down.

Unfortunately, the construction company overseeing the building’s demolition hadn’t gotten the memo. A YESCO crew arrived just in time to see a huge tractor driving back and forth over a heap of torn down signage.

Foxy’s, Deaner says, was one of those “signs you have heartburn about.” But it was nothing compared with the loss of one of Vegas’ most cherished signs, the giant New Frontier marquee. The New Frontier Hotel had closed in July 2007 and was imploded that November. But the dazzling cross-shaped sign, with its classy Wild West-style lettering, remained standing for more than a year. The museum was very interested. “We did try and get the sign,” Deaner says. “We made our foray to find out if there was any possibility. It was a big sign. We were told by some people who knew that sign very well that it wouldn’t survive.” The sign was not strong enough to survive being cut into pieces; the only way to save the New Frontier sign was to save it in its entirety—an expensive and technically difficult proposition. “When we found that out,” says Deaner, “we didn’t pursue it.” But even if the museum had continued efforts to acquire the sign, it would probably have been too late. There was another player involved—Steve Wynn. In December 2008, on the eve of opening Encore across the street from the New Frontier site, Wynn ordered the sign demolished. To him, the old sign was an eyesore.

It’s unclear whether the sign could have somehow been saved. Perhaps a large donation could have paid for the sign’s removal intact. Regardless, the demolition was another example of the hubris toward the city’s past that has played so well for so long—and that now just seems like foolishness.

“We had no idea,” says Kelly of Wynn’s move. “None. Until we saw the trucks out there and they were halfway done with the signs.”

• • •

With the 2007-08 reassembly of the shell-shaped La Concha Motel lobby—that great example of googie architecture by the pioneering black architect Paul Revere Williams—the Neon Museum began to acquire a real sense of place. The shell was also, Marion says, “the catalyst for raising the funds necessary to turn it into a full-time operating museum.” The lobby is being renovated into a visitors center scheduled to open next year.

The Boneyard may call itself a museum, but if you take a tour around the gravel-covered grounds, which are marked off by a chain-link fence, you quickly realize the Boneyard is still, at heart, a junkyard for old signs. Although it’s surrounded by amenities such as Cashman Field and the main branch of the Las Vegas Library, the neighborhood itself feels like a ruin, a forgotten stretch of town.

The museum has no plans to spruce itself up ahead of next year’s visitors center renovation. Kelly says she wants to keep the “rough-and-ready kind of vibe at the museum.” It reminds her of something like Roman ruins. “It’s not refined in the way a more traditional institutional experience is,” she says. “That’s part of what’s so wonderful. We don’t want to compromise that.”

That natural look was the result of a painstaking process that Kelly oversaw, working with, among others, an artist, an architect and a crane operator. “You go in there, and it’s not like a museum. You have this wonderful experience. Every square inch was thought about, planned, plotted, measured. We worked on that over a couple of years. You don’t want to ever completely see the end of your path, so it’s a magical mystery tour of fonts and shapes and textures.”

Positioning the pieces of the Boneyard was a giant art installation project for Kelly, who is also an artist. At times, she literally instructed the crane operators to move signs that were “as big as a mobile home. I’d be like, ‘A little to the left,’ like it’s furniture.”

Kelly’s careful work creates a through-the-looking-glass sensation of scale. While many of the old casino signs look small or proportional on a 30-story building, in the Boneyard they are enormous. And, strangely enough, they make you feel bigger, too. Outside, the Strip has tended to rather gleefully beat us down into stupefied, giddy submission. The Strip is most satisfying in its moments when its assault of signs and lights and buildings achieve a bone-crunching density, rendering us not so much active players but dizzied, bowed spectators who can only raise a white flag of awed surrender.

Here, in the Boneyard, it’s very much the opposite effect. Walking past the long yellow Golden Nugget sign, or the pieces of the elegant Moulin Rouge marquee or those towering Desert Inn letters, you get a visceral sense of connection with the sign. It’s a connection you can’t get on the Strip, and could never get whizzing by in a car. It’s an intensely tactile place. You want to reach out and touch everything. When workers repainted these signs, they would often autograph them, the same way construction workers might sign their name to a skyscraper’s highest I-beam. Kelly’s favorite is a guy who signed the signs with the tag “Sleeze.” “We are,” she says, “the proud custodian of three Sleeze repaint jobs.”

“The physicality of the place is very enticing,” she says, so enticing that the Boneyard occasionally has problems with people trying to steal light bulbs or pieces of the signs.

But there’s something even deeper than scale at work here, a feeling that runs counter to the common perception of Las Vegas as a shallow place devoted to play. You can feel the labor that went into not only designing them, but building them, bending neon, hoisting steel into the sky, clamoring up and down them year after year to maintain them, and finally, heroically, taking them apart.

In other words, the signs suggest in their simple brawn a reminder that Las Vegas works at least as hard as it plays. The workers who created, erected and serviced the signs had their own hard-nosed culture. “They rappelled down 180-foot signs pre-OSHA and replaced bulbs,” Kelly says. “There’s a certain sense of masculinity: ‘I’m a man, this is a hunk of junk, I can haul it up in my crane.’”

• • •

Joe DeJesus of Casino Lighting & Sign has spent a career putting up and taking down signs, putting in and taking out tens of thousands of incandescent bulbs. When the Stardust sign came down in 2007, DeJesus got the call. It took him and a dozen guys a week to dismantle the sign, with help from a giant Dielco crane. Nine pieces in all, the letters, the stars, all loaded onto trailers and moved to the Boneyard. It cost around $200,000—Boyd Gaming donated about half the money; the museum raised the rest.

The Stardust sign was one of the museum’s toughest acquisitions. The sign itself was enormous—96 feet wide and 180 feet tall—and dismantling it would be difficult and expensive. Then there was the question of ownership rights. Boyd Gaming owned the sign and wanted to donate it, but the Boyd family also wanted to maintain an ownership interest in the sign—meaning, if the museum ever put a Stardust logo on a mug, they’d need Boyd’s permission. The negotiations took several weeks, weeks that drew tense not so much because of acrimony between the sides but because the Stardust demolition was imminent. “We were under the gun to get that sign out of there,” Deaner says. “Any minute, the building was going to be torn down. We were all feverishly hammering it out so that sign could be moved.”

It took two weeks for DeJesus to ready the sign for transport. Taking signs down can be expensive because of their weight and complexity. Often workers don’t have blueprints for the signs and don’t know exactly how they’re supposed to take it apart. Usually an engineer will be sent in to do a comprehensive field check. The interior of the Stardust sign is complete with multiple levels and walkways.

The Stardust sign now sits like a beached tank in the middle of the Boneyard, still striking enough to bring a South American family to tears. Countless visions of Las Vegas have risen and fallen—Mob-era Vegas, Hughes-era Vegas, the Vegas where volcanoes and pirate battles represented the state of the art. Many of the signs that marked those ages have disappeared forever, but here, at the Boneyard, old signs still bridge generations. Many will never be relit; some may never even be reassembled. But they have survived weather and rust and pigeon shit. Peeled paint hugs many of them like autumn leaves, or cigarette butts. In the dryness of our climate, they endure. They speak not only to our fantasies but to the simple, honest reality of workaday Vegas.

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  • John Christmas

    I felt some nostalgia by reading your article. The last vegas lights are definitely worth preserving, as some of them tell the history and changes that have been made at Las Vegas. It is a shame that some parts of our history are just thrown away.

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