‘A Badass’

Betty Willis | May 20, 1923-April 19, 2015

Willis, 1998. | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Willis, 1998. | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

What exactly is it about that sign?

At almost any time of day, people are lined up on the little sliver of land between lanes on the south end of the Strip. Elvis might be there, or the occasional showgirl; there’s always at least one pair of newlyweds. Sometimes you see them darting across the street; they risk life and limb running the gauntlet to the middle lane, all to capture a moment in photograph, an instantaneous memory starring the most famous sign in the world.

Why do I love that sign? I idolize its designer.

Betty Willis is utterly Battle Born. On May 20, 1923, she was welcomed to the world by Stephen and Gertrude Whitehead in Overton, the youngest of eight children. Tired of his commute to Las Vegas, Stephen—the first appointed Clark County assessor and first elected Clark County recorder—relocated the family to Las Vegas soon after.

She grew up in a house that once stood at Seventh Street and Mesquite Avenue, attending Fifth Street School and Las Vegas High School like so many other legends of her era. Although Vegas was home, interviews suggest it was the allure of Los Angeles’ neon that ignited her imagination. Occasional visits exposed her to California’s flashier skyline: chasing neon, scintillating bulbs, animation, wild lights. It’s hard to imagine Fremont Street in the late ’20s and early ’30s, a dirt road Main Street with five-and-dimes, candy stores … and the occasional debaucherous club. Vegas was a tiny, wild West town, and the luminous Strip wasn’t even a glimmer on the horizon. Los Angeles must have been dazzling for a little girl with hungry eyes.

Willis attended art school in Los Angeles, returning to Las Vegas to work for an advertising agency and freelance as an illustrator, designing newspaper show ads for early Strip resorts, such as the Thunderbird, El Rancho and the Flamingo. She soon joined Young Electric Sign Company, working alongside legendary designers such as Jack Larsen (Silver Slipper), Ben Mitchem (Dunes) and Hermon Boernge (Vegas Vic, Sands).

In 1952 she joined Western Neon, where she would have worked alongside the incomparable Brian “Buzz” Leming (Barbary Coast), who died the same day as Willis. It was here that she designed her most famous sign, and it was here that she arguably hit her stride.

Those are the stats. Now, let that sink in a moment: 1952. Betty Willis, a female designer defining herself in a male-dominated industry in the early 1950s. In my mind, she is Peggy Olson from Mad Men: pert and saucy, ensemble perfectly on point but just conservative enough to artfully sidestep her sexuality, just as or more talented than her male peers, adept at killing it creatively without emasculating the men in the room. Only Mad Men starts in the 1960s; Betty had Peggy beat by about 10 years.

Willis the artist gave us bright, evocative, era-defining signs. Her creative manipulation of lettering, perhaps because of years spent as a graphic designer, was dauntless and set her signs apart. This 2-D sensibility translated into signs that used the sky like a canvas, day and night. The floating pink neon cursive of the Moulin Rouge (1955) is deceptively effortless: it was natural, elegant, light and airy, blithe in its carefully spontaneous script. The social significance of a female artist designing a sign for a black-owned, racially integrated casino resort in 1955 cannot be overstated. The sign is an opulent tribute to a valiant place.

Her signs suggest that Willis the designer had the smarts to use every tool to her advantage. Working alongside the epic male designers at Yesco, this young graphic artist learned how to think about looking at signs, how to maximize a three-dimensional visual experience. According to Willis, Hermon Boernge taught her how to estimate a sign build, and, by extension, project engineering and material costs. This skill, rare among sign designers, set her apart from the rest of the boys. When it came to a sign like the Blue Angel (1956), a massive sculpture teetering atop a monolithic pole, Willis was able to realize the vision for the sign, understand the limits of fabrication and potential of materials, all within budget. But with Willis, you also got an unforgettable, voluptuous, Disney-esque angel holding court over gorgeous azure skies.

She was the definition of a badass.

For some, a sign is simply pop culture, alluring and entertaining but incapable of transcending its more functional purpose.  For others, signs are the architecture of memories and meaning. Willis was able to articulate complex, subtle intimacies and ideas in physical form. Through her sensitive, playful and enduring signs, this pioneering female artist and designer gave to Las Vegas locals a moving and unfathomable gift: an image to think of when they think of home.

Danielle Kelly is the former director of the Neon Museum.

Which brings us back to that sign. Why this small, relatively modest, and imperfectly designed sign? Unlike the rest of the Strip, through countless implosions, reinventions and demolitions, the sign has remained. It’s not for a casino or resort or motel: it’s for the city itself. When designing the sign, Betty Willis was tasked with creating an emblem that might capture the spirit of Las Vegas and celebrate its endless stream of temporary residents. In response, she designed a timeless sign for Las Vegas that speaks to her character and the character of the city she called home.

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.

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