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60 things to know about the ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign

It’s one of the few landmarks to be embraced by a city known for blowing its history to smithereens.

The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign has survived — thrived even — despite having outlived its usefulness by half a century. That’s how long it’s been since the old Route 91, of which Las Vegas Boulevard was a part, has served as the main corridor from Southern California.

The venerable sign, now more likely to greet motorists returning from Town Square or the outlet mall, is 60 years old this month.

Probably.

Few records exist, and its installation generated no news coverage.

Still, since we’ve come to accept May 1959 as its origins, here are 60 things you should know as the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign turns 60:

1. It was not the first sign welcoming visitors to Las Vegas.

2. A wooden arch at Fremont and Main streets, reading “Welcome to Las Vegas, The Gateway to Boulder Dam,” was demolished in 1931.

3. The first mention of the current sign in the Review-Journal was a mere three paragraphs on Feb. 6, 1959: “Members of the board of county commissioners decided to advertise bids for the erection of a huge lighted welcome sign to be placed near McCarran Airport. Their action was taken following presentation of a proposed sign by a representative of Western Electric Displays, Inc. Shown was a 20-foot-wide by 30-foot-high sketch of a colorful sign, which read ‘Welcome to the Fabulous Las Vegas Strip.’ After some consideration, the commissioners decided they would rather have the sign read, ‘Welcome to Las Vegas.’ ”

4. That announcement was shorter and given a less prominent headline than the story next to it, which recounted the theft of three salamis, a wedge of cheese and five chickens from Duffy’s Tavern.

5. It doesn’t seem to have been mentioned again until November of that year, when it was spotlighted in a “Sign of the Month” feature that gave all the credit to county officials. “To greet the millions of visitors to the fabulous city of Las Vegas, the Clark County Commissioners requested sketches of proposed displays to be presented by representative neon design firms for discussion and appraisal.”

6. The story that’s been widely accepted as fact, though, is that the idea to create a sign came from Ted Rogich, a salesman at Western Electric/Western Neon and the father of political consultant and R&R Partners founder Sig Rogich.

7. The sign was designed by Overton native Betty Whitehead Willis, who also worked at Western Neon.

"Welcome to Las Vegas" sign designer Betty Willis poses with a photo of her sign at the West Ch ...
"Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign designer Betty Willis poses with a photo of her sign at the West Charleston Library in 2002. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

8. Her father, Stephen R. Whitehead, became Clark County’s first elected assessor in 1910.

9. Willis was a commercial artist in Los Angeles before returning to Las Vegas.

10. At one point, according to a 2005 profile in The New York Times, she worked at the Clark County Courthouse, handing out modest attire to women seeking divorces when they arrived showing too much skin.

11. In that same interview, Willis expressed her displeasure with the way the word “Fabulous” came out on the sign. “I sweat blood when I take a good hard look at it.”

12. She has a point. Once you notice the way the “F” bears absolutely no resemblance to the “abulous,” it’s difficult to unsee.

13. “I don’t feel it was the best sign I ever drew,” Willis told the Review-Journal. By her estimation, she designed “at least a hundred motel signs.”

14. Her other prominent works include the cursive Moulin Rouge sign and the buxom Blue Angel statue.

The Blue Angel statue, designed by Betty Willis, at the Neon Museum's Ne10 Studio in Las Vegas ...
The Blue Angel statue, designed by Betty Willis, at the Neon Museum's Ne10 Studio in Las Vegas on Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Chase Stevens Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

15. “I got criticized for depicting a super-well-endowed angel,” she told The New York Times. “I said, ‘Well show me an angel, and I’ll draw her.’ ”

16. The sign’s stretched-diamond shape was inspired by a version of the Goodyear logo.

17. The circles around the letters of the word “Welcome” represent silver dollars.

18. Willis has said she incorporated the star as an homage to a Disneyland logo as a way to represent “happiness.”

19. That star, with the addition of crossed swords, became the secondary logo of the Vegas Golden Knights.

20. An artist’s rendering of the sign decorates the side of Marc-Andre Fleury’s goalie mask.

In this Jan. 21, 2018, file photo, Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) watc ...
Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) watches the action during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

21. During the 2017 NFL Draft, the Raiders announced their fourth- through seventh-round picks at the sign.

22. The Las Vegas Lights’ crest mimics the shape of the sign, rotated 90 degrees.

23. The divisive UNLV logo unveiled in 2017 gave Hey Reb! a face shaped like the sign with that star for an eye.

24. A Denver-based design firm was paid nearly $50,000 to come up with that monstrosity.

25. The entire “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign cost Clark County just $4,000.

26. Even accounting for inflation, that’s only a little more than $35,000 in 2019 dollars.

27. The sign is owned and maintained by YESCO, formerly the Young Electric Sign Company, which acquired Western Neon.

28. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

29. Other Clark County landmarks on that list include Hoover Dam, the Huntridge Theater and Little Church of the West.

30. The Whitehead House, the Mission Revival-style home built in 1929 at 333 North Seventh Street where Willis grew up, was on the National Register of Historic Places until it burned in 2000.

31. Somehow, the Register includes the Clark Avenue Railroad Underpass, that nondescript hunk of concrete that drivers dip under on Bonanza Road between D and Main streets.

32. The sign’s bulbs are typically yellow, but they’ve been swapped out for other colors to promote various causes.

33. It’s gone dark for 60 minutes to commemorate Earth Hour.

34. It once went dark because of confusion over who was supposed to pay the electricity bill. On Oct. 4, 1999, Nevada Power pulled the plug because the account had been delinquent since that May.

35. Remarkably, no one seemed to notice until Nov. 15, when the company whose name had been on the account was notified in relation to another matter.

36. Since 2014, the sign has been powered by solar energy.

37. A second version of the sign was erected in 2002 near Fourth Street and Las Vegas Boulevard.

38. A third was installed in 2007 on Boulder Highway near Tropicana Avenue.

39. A fourth was created in 2009 and lazily placed somewhere near Sunrise Mountain, possibly on East Lake Mead Boulevard, by whoever was doing the CGI for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” That was far from the movie’s biggest mistake.

40. According to the Neon Museum, the actual sign made its movie debut in the 1966 sexploitation thriller “The Velvet Trap.”

41. Willis never trademarked the sign, having called it her gift to the city.

42. The showgirls and Elvis impersonators who pose there for photographs with tourists have made more from Willis’ efforts than she ever did.

43. So has anyone who’s ever sold a shot glass, ashtray, cheaply made T-shirt or any of the hundreds of other souvenirs that bear its likeness.

44. In 1999, the sign was defaced with a red marker.

45. Even though it wasn’t in his jurisdiction, Mayor Oscar Goodman called for harsh punishment for the offenders. “Off with their heads,” he said through a spokesperson.

46. To celebrate the sign’s 50th anniversary, Goodman hosted “the world’s largest bikini parade,” featuring 281 swimsuit-clad women led by Holly Madison.

Women in swimsuits stand on a temporary stage set up next to the "Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas ...
Women in swimsuits stand on a temporary stage set up next to the "Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada" sign during an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the sign on the Las Vegas Strip Thursday, May 14, 2009. (John Gurzinski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

47. The next summer, as part of a marketing campaign, the sign was altered for the first time in its history to read “Welcome to Fabulous Camp Vegas.” The ceremony, again hosted by Goodman and Madison with the addition of Wayne Newton, featured skydivers wearing bikinis.

48. Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s administration has required far fewer bikinis.

49. In 1993, Don Brinkerhoff, a consultant from California hired by casino owners on the Strip, recommended replacing it. “It seems like the sign is somewhat out of date,” he said.

50. The sign inspired the Brandon Flowers song “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” from his 2010 debut solo album, “Flamingo.”

51. TripAdvisor ranks visiting the sign as 44th of 400 things to do in Las Vegas.

52. TripAdvisor thinks there are only 400 things to do in Las Vegas?

53. The sign is featured on the Las Vegas centennial commemorative license plate.

54. That’s the most popular specialty plate in Nevada, with 93,662 of them active in fiscal year 2018.

55. Those plates generated $2.1 million last year for historic preservation projects in Las Vegas.

56. Until 2008, there was no parking available at the sign.

57. Following the mass shooting on Oct. 1, 2017, the land around the sign became a memorial to the 58 lives lost.

58. The 58 crosses created by retired Chicago carpenter Greg Zanis, along with other public tributes, have been preserved by the Clark County Museum.

Greg Zanis, of Aurora, Ill., carries one of 58 crosses he placed near the Welcome to Fabulous L ...
Greg Zanis, of Aurora, Ill., carries one of 58 crosses he placed near the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign honoring victims of the Oct.1 shooting on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

59. The sign is actually in unincorporated Clark County.

60. “Welcome to Fabulous Unincorporated Clark County” doesn’t have the same flair.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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