Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Where Vegas' Old Neon Signs Go to Rest
Neon defines Las Vegas. Glowing, brightly color tubes of gas shaped into words and images played a major role in creating the city’s splashy image.
Fortunately, while Las Vegas hasn’t done much over the years to preserve much of its history, it has treated many of its classic old neon signs a little better.
Several years ago, when the city created the electronic canopy known as the Fremont Street Experience in the downtown area, it also decided to display some of its most historic neon signs near the entrance to the Experience.
This cluster of vintage signs constitutes the Las Vegas Neon Museum. Of course, the primary reasons these signs aren’t entombed in a museum building are that some of quite large and were meant to be publicly displayed—they are signs after all.
The reason that so many of the city’s historic neon signs exist today is that the company that manufactured many of them, Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) maintained for many years a graveyard for signs in Las Vegas. There, literally dozens of old neon signs were stored.
About a decade ago, YESCO agreed to allow the signs to be refurbished for the Neon Museum, which was established in 1996. The first sign, installed on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street, was the Hacienda Horse and Rider, originally erected in 1967 at the Hacienda Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip (the hotel was blown up a few years ago).
Historically, the first neon signs in Las Vegas began to appear in the 1930s on Fremont Street. Initially, the signs were modest and merely advertised the various hotels and casinos.
But, as architectural historian Alan Hess noted in his book, “Viva Las Vegas,” “Twenty-five years later Fremont Street would take the neon city even further, turning signs into the architecture itself.”
In the past few years, several more historic neon signs have been refurbished and re-installed in downtown Las Vegas, including:
• Aladdin’s Lamp - This giant neon replica of an old-fashioned oil lamp was first lit in 1966 at the Aladdin Hotel. When that hotel was torn down in the 1990s, the sign was saved. In 1997, it was restored to its former glory and installed on the northwest corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard.
• The Flame - Originally installed in 1961, this neon sign in the shape of fire was perched for many years on the roof of the Flame Restaurant on Desert Inn Road.
• Andy Anderson - This cheerful milkman, the mascot for Anderson Dairy, first appeared in 1956 at the dairy located on Las Vegas Boulevard South. it was moved downtown to the Neon Museum in 1997.
• Chief Hotel Court - The oldest sign in the museum’s collection, this classic motor court sign boasts an Indian chief in full headdress and art deco-style lettering (including neon letters spelling out “Steamed Heat”). Originally erected in 1940, the sign was originally located on the hotel at 1201 E. Fremont Street.
• The Red Barn - This sign dates circa 1960. It was made by YESCO and installed on a bar of the same name at 1317 Tropicana Avenue. The bar burned to the ground but the sign was saved.
• Nevada Motel – This sign dates to about 1950 and was once located at 5th Street and Garces in Las Vegas. An important feature is the first appearance of the image known as "Vegas Vic.”
Additionally, on East Fremont, four new 40-foot-high retro neon signs of showgirl, red shoe, etc. that compliment the historic neon and are part of the city’s $5.5 million expansion of the downtown entertainment district.
Perhaps the coolest place to view old (and unrestored) neon is the Neon Boneyard, the storage area for the city’s signs that may one day be restored. There, surrounding the restored lobby of the historic La Concha Motel (saved and moved to the Boneyard to serve as a visitors center), are hundreds of old signs.
The Boneyard is located at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard (821 Las Vegas Boulevard North) near Cashman Center. At the present time, it is only open by appointment.
Peeking through the fence, you can see the over-sized skeletons of many of Las Vegas’ most recognizable signs including the original Binion’s Horseshoe marquee, the high-heeled women’s shoe that once topped the Silver Slipper Casino and a curved Golden Nugget entrance sign.
For more information, go to the museum’s web site, www.neonmuseum.org/tour.