Las Vegas is a place of contrasts. Most people recognize the glitzy lights of the strip, but there’s another side to this municipality that is worth a look-see. It’s a town with a lot to offer and too few visitors discover this fact. Don’t get so distracted by the shows, the gambling and the food – that you miss out on some really fun alternative opportunities.
I recommend a visit to the Neon Museum.
This nifty cool non-profit is dedicated to preserving the neon sign. That’s kinda bizarre and weird…and so Las Vegas. The guided tour through the boneyard was informative and entertaining, and relayed a sense of what a strange place Las Vegas has always been.
Light-up signs and neon fixtures are a signature of old Vegas and they’re celebrated in memorabilia everywhere. On the tour you learn about some of the folks who designed iconic signs, like Betty Willis who produced the famous Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign (among others).
Tidbits of tantalizing backstory, notable accomplishments, and gossip are offered up in the context of the signage. There’s even the tale of the unlikely discovery of one old sign, abandoned in a desert arroyo and left rusting for decades, that was recovered and brought to the boneyard.
The signage and displays were created and maintenanced by various companies, in fact on some of the samples in the yard you can see the metal hand and footholds used by the employee whose task it was to change the bulbs. Now that must have been a crazy job!
Some companies maintained storage places for inactive materials, like a sign junkyard, where obsolete items were hidden away for future cannibalizing. The Neon Museum has acquired just such a locale and they offer guided tours through the boneyard.
Eventually there will be a visitor’s center and a museum, but it’s a long-term project and when you see the scale of some of the signs, you have a new appreciation for their efforts. Right now the boneyard is best seen with a mixture of nostalgia, a splash of vulgarity, and the ability to embrace over-the-top fun.
The place is a work in progress – a living museum.
The visitor center is scheduled to open in 2012 and will be housed in the lobby of the historic La Concha Motel. This somewhat alarming structure is shaped (sort of), like a giant clamshell and once graced the far end of the strip. The dedication of the folks behind this project is evident by their commitment to scraping together the dough to have this enormous concrete building cut into eight pieces, transported across town, and then craned back together.
It’s gonna be a look only Vegas could love.
There’s a very strict photography policy, meaning that the photos you take are for personal use only, which is why all the pictures in this post were acquired from the Neon Museum website. It’s possible to surf around and find a lot of other photographs, but you should visit to experience the full effect. If you enjoy popular culture mixed with a bit of history and a sprinkling of glitz, take the tour…it really is fun.
For those of you who’ve been kicking around long enough to remember the early casinos, now lost to us, the tour at the Neon Museum is a trip down memory lane. The sight of a distinctive letter from the old Caesar’s Palace might bring a smile to your lips, just as the genie’s lamp from the Aladdin tweaks a chord of familiarity.
So many signs brought back memories I didn’t know were in my head, like the Showboat, the Nugget, the Silver Slipper, the Tam O’Shanter, and the Horseshoe Club. Most of them derive from the movies and television programs of my youth, but some were a result of traveling through an older version of Vegas.
Saddened to find the former glory that was the Sahara Casino shuttered, boarded and fenced up – the discovery of several signs (one including a camel), in the boneyard cheered me up about the changing-of-the-guard. The Las Vegas of my adolescence is not the strip of today…and that’s okay.
In true Darwinian fashion, eventually the monolithic hotels of now will also be consumed, replaced by some newer monstrosity lurking on the horizon. I hope one or two bits of signage from the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, the Luxor, and the Venetian will somehow find their way to the boneyard.
Plan your visit to the pictorial cemetary of sin city. Don’t forget a stroll down Fremont Street where some of the restored signage has been put back into use. Mark it on the itinerary now and remember…what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Unless it’s communicable.