When Tim Burton visited Las Vegas as a child, he remembers being awestruck by the three giant sea horses that jutted out of the swimming pool at The Dunes hotel.
“I remember those sea horses like giant sea horses. And so then many years later that’s your memory of it. Then you look at it and they’re about that tall,” Burton says, holding his hands about two feet apart. “So that’s a beautiful thing. And the weird thing about Las Vegas is your perception and the illusion of it. That’s why Las Vegas is such a weird dream.”
The “weirdness” of the sea horses is just one of the many examples of “weird” that the filmmaker finds in Las Vegas. And he’s leaning into the weird of both Las Vegas and his own body of work in his new exhibit “Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum presented by the Engelstad Foundation,” opening Tuesday at The Neon Museum.
As the director, producer, writer and animator of movies including “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Beetlejuice” and “Alice in Wonderland,” he’s made a name for himself as a purveyor of weird.
The 61-year-old remembers his first encounters with the weird as a child, when he and his family would make the drive from Burbank to Las Vegas.
“We were to coming to Vegas since I was basically a baby, weekends in Vegas all the time,” Burton said at a news conference on Monday morning. “You know, from the ’60s and ’70s to now, I’ve seen all of it change. Whatever changes, it still remains weird.”
He confessed to having sneaked into The Neon Museum’s outdoor Boneyard after hours to look at the old signs and marquees, saying that it was long ago enough that the statute of limitations has passed.
“They were beautiful and were just like these old dinosaur bones or something, something beautiful and it was quite peaceful and beautiful and electric and alive all at the same time,” he said. “They’re beautiful art pieces.”
In “Lost Vegas,” about 90 percent of his more than 40 digital and sculptural works were created specifically for The Neon Museum and have never been shown.
The largest work in the collection is a 40-by-20 foot grid that overlooks the Boneyard. The grid bears six neon signs, including one at its center portraying the three neon seahorses Burton saw all those years ago at The Dunes.
The exhibit’s tallest component is a 40-foot-tall sign tower in the shape of a spade with the words “Lost Vegas” on it.
Some of his works are easily recognizable — and even more easily spotted within the museum’s collection. Three life-sized aliens from “Mars Attacks!” stand menacingly in the shadow of the guitar from the Hard Rock Hotel.
Three flying saucers tower over a sign from Ellis Island and next to a pair of air dancers.
Still more of his artworks are embedded within the museum’s existing collection and blend in almost seamlessly.
A small 2019 letterboard that reads “Betelgeuse Betelgeuse” looks just as weathered and worn as the marquees it is placed beneath.
Stout models of his characters Penguin Boy and Stain Boy, characters from his 1997 book, “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories,” lurk inconspicuously, tucked away in small corners near large-scale artworks.
Other artworks make use of the Boneyard’s architecture. “Bugs” dangle from the defunct cursive letters of the Moulin Rouge. Six surrealist sculptures of pirates linger on either side of the skull that used to mark the entrance to Treasure Island.
Burton’s more charming creatures are housed inside a dome, near the outdoor gallery’s exit. Inside, colorful characters are projected onto the ceiling. A carousel at the ceiling’s center rotates around a plasma globe.
Along the walls, Burton’s holographic animations come to life within 14 shadow boxes as small figures sway back-and-forth or, in some cases, suffer severe bodily harm.
At the dome’s center, Robot Boy places a coin into a life-size slot machine and summons a love interest in a 20-second show.
Outside the Boneyard, Stain Boy Sing-A-Long takes place inside a black shipping container. Pressing a button activates a classic rock karaoke song, with Stain Boy at the helm. Visitors can step up to the microphone and watch in delight — or horror— as the image of their mouth gets projected onto Stain Boy’s face.
The light-projection show “Brilliant!” will also borrow from Burton’s imagination with the inclusion of Stainboy. The show features the song “The Man” by Burton’s favorite band, The Killers.
Since the ’60s, Burton has watched Las Vegas grow and change. But, he says, it’s never lost what makes it great.
“What you’ve kept — the beauty — is the thing that I’ve always loved,” Burton says. “It’s the artistry, the color, the lights, the way the signs, you know, are alive that was very powerful for me growing up.”
Before making films like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Corpse Bride,” Burton directed “Mars Attacks!” The movie was Burton’s first creative endeavor in Las Vegas and featured famous buildings such as La Concha Motel, now The Neon Museum’s home, and the implosion of the Landmark.
“I got an email from a curator, Tim Burton’s curator,” McCoy said. “It said he loves The Neon Museum. He loves Las Vegas. He would love to exhibit at the museum. How do you answer an email like that?”
In his first exhibit in North America in nearly 10 years, Burton’s works were designed to interact with the retired signs currently on display and to dazzle with neon by night.
“Someone asked me last week, why Tim Burton?” McCoy said at Monday’s news conference. “Why The Neon Museum? And I said, well, we’re one of the most unconventional museums in the world. And I dare say that Tim Burton is probably one of the most unconventional artists and directors in the world. It’s a perfect match.”
If you go
What: “Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum presented by the Engelstad Foundation”
Where: The Neon Museum (770 Las Vegas Boulevard North)
When: 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. through Feb. 15
Tickets: $30 for general admission, $24 for “Tim Burton Brilliant!”; neonmuseum.org or (702) 387-6366