Neon Museum preserving Las Vegas history by giving old signs new life

For a long time, many people thought of Las Vegas’ Neon Boneyard as the place where signs went to die.

Starting Saturday, however, those flashing, glowing signposts of Las Vegas’ past find a new life at downtown’s latest cultural attraction: the Neon Museum.

The museum opens to the public following a week of pre-debut events, including a Tuesday illumination, a Thursday lecture on "Neon Nirvana: How an Art Form Shaped a City" and tonight’s grand opening bash.

Hovering above Las Vegas Boulevard, the light-bedecked Silver Slipper points the way to the museum’s visitor center: the clamshell-shaped La Concha Motel lobby, which was saved from demolition and transported from its original home on the Strip after the motel closed in 2003.

Inside the 1961-vintage concrete clamshell, visitors can sign up for guided tours and enjoy interactive previews of museum signs, from the Stardust to the Moulin Rouge – along with photos of they way they were. (Kiosks also will offer souvenirs featuring the museum’s La Concha logo, the spangled Silver Slipper and the glittering Stardust marquee.)

Most of the Neon Museum, however, exemplifies the notion of a "museum without walls," its exhibits arrayed along the boneyard’s winding paths.

Guided tours for groups of 15 will run every hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; reservations are recommended. (The museum will be closed to the public on Sundays, prime time for fee-paying movie and photo shoots.)

The museum offered by-appointment tours even before its official opening, attracting about a thousand visitors a month, "so we’re not necessarily starting from square one," executive director Danielle Kelly notes.

Now, however, "the question is, how do we manage crowd control, without losing the intimate feel that made this a popular destination?" she says.

After all, "we’re not like another museum – we can’t have people wandering around," notes Nancy Deaner, director of Las Vegas’ Office of Cultural Affairs and president of the museum’s trustees.

Deaner, who’s spent more than three decades working to bring the Neon Museum to life, says its debut "shows you that perseverance pays off. Sometimes."

Although, she admits, there were times – "almost every year throughout the whole thing" – when she wondered whether the museum would ever open.

"It was touch-and-go for a long time," Deaner says, remembering when "we had $90 in our account."

But a $300,000 grant from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau (which paid for half of the cost to move the La Concha lobby) finally put the museum on the road to reality, she says.

Overall, the project cost more than $6 million, Deaner estimates – including the cost of the adjacent city park.

That may sound like a lot, but "this project was done on a shoestring," Deaner maintains. "It’s huge bang for the buck."

The word "huge" also describes the array (and, sometimes, the size) of the museum’s unplugged signs, which meet at the crossroads of time and place, marking various eras (and areas) in Las Vegas history.

The first sign visitors encounter as they depart the La Concha clamshell: a lightbulb-encrusted wall arching over the walkway, its repeated "H" pattern branding it as part of the Fremont Street landmark formerly known as Binion’s Horseshoe.

Looking straight ahead from the Horseshoe wall, there’s the inimitable minaret-and-camels array from the Sahara, which closed last year.

And, to the right, the Golden Nugget’s original gilded sign signals the start of an area devoted to hotel facades.

The boneyard "used to be just a dirt lot," Kelly explains, and "when the signs came in, we put them wherever there was room."

Now the display has a narrative arc, one that aims to maintain a visual aesthetic highlighting all the textures and colors of the museum’s curated signs, she says.

Beneath the faded turquoise of a Horseshoe sign, for example, patches of Pepto-Bismol pink peep through, indicating the sign’s former life at downtown’s Mint, which the Horseshoe later absorbed.

A progression of even more Golden Nugget signs shows "they were really innovative," Kelly says, noting how the casino’s neon-bedecked image exemplifies "signage, architecture and theme integrating," she explains. "Like the Stardust, the facade became the sign. The entire exterior lit up the whole street."

Fremont Street, that is – which was, Las Vegans once bragged, "brighter than daylight," Deaner recalls.

Tucked amid all that Golden Nugget signage, a giant "B" in a fancy frontier-style font stands apart.

It takes a moment to recognize it out of context; it’s from what used to be the Barbary Coast (currently Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall) on the Strip.

Sign designer Buzz Leming cites it as his favorite of all the casino signs he worked on; he’s also represented at the Neon Museum by signs for the Frontier and downtown’s Coin Castle. (Never fear, the Coin Castle’s monarch still reigns at the Neon Museum.)

Leming, who worked for YESCO (the Young Electric Sign Co.) from 1964 to 1978, says Neon Museum officials have "done a heck of a job" in preserving so many relics of Las Vegas’ glowing neon past. "It’s such a shame they didn’t start 20 years ago."

Indeed, for every sign preserved – the Silver Nugget’s namesake ore, a reminder of the Mid-Towner Hotel Apartments ("Cooled by Refrigeration," the sign reassures sweltering Vegas visitors), the Tam O’Shanter’s twirling tartan headgear – others got away.

Leming cites the Dunes’ towering minaret-shaped sign, a victim of the 1993 implosion that made way for Bellagio, noting "I don’t think they even bothered to save part of it" and bemoaning the fact that no one thought "this is worth something from an aesthetic basis."

According to Deaner, nobody knows the whereabouts of the Mint’s cascading pink neon facade or the Thunderbird’s neon namesake, which was "a beauty, too."

She also recalls the days "we had to chase the signs" to save them from demolition, remembering the time she and other Neon Museum advocates raced downtown to rescue the closing Odyssey Records sign – only to arrive "just as the dump truck was crushing it."

The fact that museum backers wanted a record store sign indicates that "we’re not snobs," Kelly points out – as demonstrated by the boneyard’s noncasino neon.

That collection includes the museum’s oldest sign: a 1930s remnant of the Green Shack, touting the Fremont Street eatery’s "COCKTAILS STEAKS CHICKEN."

Steiner Cleaners’ "Happy Shirt" has intertwined arms that would go up and down, showing off his freshly laundered self. Hearts and lovebirds intertwine on the Chapel by the Courthouse sign. Downtown’s El Portal and East Charleston Boulevard’s Fox represent long-gone movie theaters, while Pat Clark Pontiac and Ugly Duckling Cars’ bright yellow duckling recall past auto dealers. And if the China Doll restaurant’s namesake looks familiar, you’ve undoubtedly visited Cedar City, Utah, her home for decades.

Even with such commercial signs, it’s impossible to escape the boneyard’s only-in-Vegas atmosphere.

Scuttled from his post high atop the Strip, Treasure Island’s once-trademark pirate skull stares skyward, gold teeth glinting in the sun. Neon signatures from the Liberace Museum and Debbie Reynolds’ casino, Aladdin’s lamp, a Caesars Palace pediment and faded Flamingo frontage, which Deaner remembers as "the brightest, most vibrant coral pink" in its Strip heyday.

And everywhere, the Stardust’s diamond-shaped stars materialize, reminding museum visitors of Las Vegas’ long-ago glow – and the sparkle that remains.

"They never did die," Deaner says of the Neon Museum’s still-glowing signs. "This is a boneyard full of life."

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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