Museum docents who know their neon bring Boneyard tours to life

The most important part of the signage in the Neon Museum’s Boneyard is the neon gas inside. When electrified, the gas glows, creating Las Vegas’ iconic art form.

For Danielle Kelly, the museum’s executive director, the museum’s tour guides are its neon gas.

“Our tour guides are the key component to our mission,” she said. “They’re really the front line in interacting with our guests.”

Bill Lee, the museum’s lead docent, has worked two years at the Neon Museum, which opened to the public in October 2012 . Before October, staff members were volunteers who gave private tours by appointment only.

Lee estimates he has given more than 300 hour long tours to more than 3,000 visitors. He said his motivation comes from the love he has for the museum and its memories.

“That one hour goes fast,” he said. “You want to give every fact, but it’s just not possible. So, you have to vibe with the audience. There is a different chemistry with each group.”

Lee takes his job seriously, starting “trivia throwdowns” in the lobby with fellow guides, constantly sharing interesting articles, videos and books.

“I’m obsessed. I take every opportunity I can to learn more about the history behind the signs,” he said. “Just how songs you liked in high school take you back to those moments, so do these signs.”

The nonprofit Neon Museum employs 11 tour guides after recently hiring four , all of whom have their own ways of telling the signs’ stories, Lee said.

“I grew up here. I had my 13th birthday at Alpine Village (Inn),” tour guide Mindy Hale said. “I’m probably the only one who mentions the Alpine Village sign because it’s special to me. In some way, I own a piece of that sign.”

Therein lies the secret to the museum’s success : not the signs alone but the memories people associate with them.

“It is a personal experience for the visitors,” Lee said. “People taking the tour have deep connections to the signs, and we try to draw that out.”

Hale recalled a recent tour she gave where a woman in the group was a former showgirl at many of the hotels.

“I kept asking her questions,” she said. “She must have told stories for half the tour, and it was better for it.”

Since its Oct. 27 opening, the museum has taken in about $230,000 in tours and photo shoots . That number excludes donations, events and retail sales, which recently expanded to the museum’s website.

Twelve hour long tours are offered daily, with a limit of 20 people per tour. As the days grow longer, the museum is considering increasing the amount of tours to as many as 15.

The installation of lights in the Boneyard is also being considered, and according to Kelly, it could come as early as spring, allowing for night tours.

The increase in hours and tours will mean an increase in staff and possibly tour guides, Kelly said.

“We’re very excited to see the museum expand to accommodate many more guests,” Kelly said.

While also up, the number of local visitors is not as high as staff members would like.

“It would be great if we could get more locals,” Lee said. “Many of the people living here worked at places like the Stardust or Binion’s. I think they would be surprised at how many memories are here for them.”

The museum is trying to attract more valley residents with special events such as its upcoming Valentine’s Day wedding package that includes Neon Nuptials in the Boneyard, a photography package and a night stay at the El Cortez .

For Lee, who never imagined he would be working as a tour guide, the Neon Museum has become a second home.

Lee recalled a recent tour he gave to a father and daughter. After spending an hour among the signs, taking pictures with her stuffed koala bear, the girl drew a picture of her marsupial on the back of a comment card and gave it to Lee.

“It was so sweet,” he said. “I get sentimental about it.”

Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter Nolan Lister at nlister@viewnews.com or 702-383-0492.

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