LAS VEGAS — One of the hottest tickets in Las Vegas isn't Cher or Celine, Blue Man Group or Cirque de Soleil. It's a day trip to a gravel lot filled with scrap metal, miles from the Strip.
There, on North Las Vegas Boulevard, surrounded by a chain-link fence, is the latest incarnation of the legendary Las Vegas neon "boneyard." It's the kind of place where great signs of long-gone casinos and bars, motels and dry cleaners go to die. They are leaned haphazardly against each other and stacked in chopped-up chunks against walls. Dust, rust and daylight obscure the beauty of their once-lush oranges and blues, reds and greens that glowed in the night.
But this is a graveyard bent on a resurrection. The signs brought here are part of a new Neon Museum to open this year. Daily tours next to a neon-themed city park across the street often sell out.
"This is one of the few places where Las Vegas will celebrate its past instead of imploding it with fireworks," said Justin Favela, the director of docents who led my tour on a winter Thursday.
Las Vegas is rediscovering neon after almost allowing a fade-out along the Strip. Casinos ditched the touchy tubes of colored inert gas for the ease of fluorescent lights under flexi glass. Later came the harsh, flashing, stadium-style LED and LCD screens that fill the Strip from the Luxor to the Stratosphere.
Neon had its birth at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and blossomed throughout the country, particularly in New York's Times Square and parts of Los Angeles. It lit up Tokyo's Ginza and London's Piccadilly.
But it was Las Vegas where neon visually exploded. By the 1950s, visitors were greeted at the south end of the Strip with the neon-lit "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. Neon splashed out from the Sands and Dunes, Stardust and Flamingo. On Fremont Street, neon turned midnight to noon around the Mint, Horseshoe, Fremont and Golden Nugget. The signs signaled visitors had arrived in an adult playground. The neon cowboy Vegas Vic gave a thumbs-up and bellowed, "Howdy, pardner!"
The signs were "declarations of decadence," wrote Linda Chase in her book, "Picturing Las Vegas."
Neon was hard to create and harder to maintain. By the 1970s, neon was in decline. Many of the signs were leased by the hotels, so when they made a change, the old neon had to be hauled off to a "boneyard" to be used for repairs or parts for new signs. The dry desert air helped them survive.
Even "Glitter Gulch" attacked its heritage. In 1995, a dramatic series of LCD screens were built over Fremont Street in an effort to revive lagging tourism downtown. Huge chunks — including the brim of Vegas Vic's Stetson — were torn out to make room for the sky frame supporting the curving screen. The "world's biggest television" is a big hit with tourists, but it makes neon lovers cringe at the damage done.
Neon became a Las Vegas cult-art phenomenon. Up to 200 people a day would come to the Young Electric Sign Co. just to look through the chain link at old signs. When the Neon Museum group started in 1996, the company donated the bulk of its old signs. It was a public service, but it also got rid of the snoopers. A University of Nevada survey in 2002 cataloged 80 neon signs that should be saved.
About 15 neon signs have been restored and put up around the city, with the largest collection at the open-air Fremont Street Gallery in downtown Las Vegas.
The new boneyard tour got its start last year when museum staff last went through the collection and hauled out 150 pieces to show to tourists in informal tours twice a day. The cost: $15. Despite the obscure location, the tours are often packed. It's a mixed blessing for the Neon Museum crew. They are excited but also overwhelmed by interest in the tours.
"It's the very worst kept secret in Las Vegas," said Bill Marion, a veteran local public relations executive who is the museum chairman.
"The neon of Las Vegas has both a national and international reputation and interest. We're not even advertising, but we can't handle the number of people who want to see it. When it opens up later this year, I think it will be one of the largest attractions outside of the Strip."
Out front, a large sign spelling NEON sits above a desert-style city park. Favela later told me the sign is copied from the neon script of famous hotels — the "N" is Golden Nugget, the "E" from Caesars Palace, the "O" from the Horseshoe and the other "N" from the grand old Desert Inn.
Inside the gates, there are pieces of the old "atomic"-style letters from the Stardust, along with pieces of its successor, the massive sparkling Stardust sign, which some public relations types claimed could be seen from space. The oldest piece is a 1930s chunk of the Green Shack. Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was torn down to make way for a Denny's.
There's the lovely swooping script from the short-lived heyday of the Moulin Rouge, the resort that broke the color barrier in 1955 (and was promptly shut down). Las Vegas would wait until 1960 to integrate casinos.
Some of the best examples are from long-gone motels. One of the most beautiful is for the defunct Yucca Motel, with bent glass yellow tubing that swirls into a version of the desert plant.
While neon is the main attraction, the boneyard has other fun pieces. A staff favorite is a golden lamp from the old Aladdin Hotel, where Elvis married Priscilla in 1967.
There's also a mullet-wearing metal statue that used to grace a pool hall, and the massive, scary pirate's face that used to top Treasure Island. It fell victim to the end of Las Vegas' attempt to recast itself as a family-friendly destination.
"They found out the whales — the big gamblers — didn't like to be around kids," Favela said.
Nearby sits the forlorn, old La Concha casino, a small, undulating, shell-shaped building that used to be on the Strip near Circus Circus. Slated for demolition in 2006, it was chopped into eight pieces and trucked to the boneyard instead. Once restored, it will be the museum visitor's center.
In the median of North Las Vegas Boulevard in front of the boneyard is one of the most famous pieces of lighted signage in the city. The screaming yellow bulbs famously kept Howard Hughes awake in his penthouse across the street at the Desert Inn. When the Silver Slipper owners refused to mute the lights, Hughes did what any eccentric billionaire might do — he bought the place and reduced the illumination.
It's these kinds of stories that supporters are hoping will bring a diverse crowd to the Neon Museum. There are the hardcore design types, with Robert Venturi's "Learning From Las Vegas" book on vernacular architecture under their arm, who will listen to how the Futura Bold font on the Stardust ruined a once-great casino sign.
But the tour will also appeal to post-World war II era gamblers who want to see bits of the old, flashy Golden Nugget sign — before the place went wedding-cake white. Locals will remember the dancing white "Happy Shirt" from Steiner's Cleaners. Modern casino buffs will love the irony of the Sahara sign missing an "h" and "r" because the Hard Rock Hotel bought the pair of letters to put up in a restaurant.
Marion said the plan is to restore some of the signs, light them up and scatter them around the boneyard. But most will remain piled up in arrested decay.
"It looks as if there is no rhyme or reason," Marion said.
That's intentional. The lighted signs are meant to display a vibrant art form, while the dead, dark signs are a melancholy reminder of the past. The tour will also allow visitors to linger with pieces of their past. "Every sign has its own story — and everyone has their own story with the signs," Marion said.
The star of the nighttime neon experience in Las Vegas is the Fremont Street Gallery. The Neon Museum website has a walking map and list of the signs scattered about — nearly all within walking distance. Some of the earliest restorations, around 1997, were of a yellow lit lamp from the Aladdin. A glittering horse and rider from the long-gone Hacienda Hotel is high on a pole over the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street.
Some of the prettiest examples of neon aren't involved with gambling at all. One of the small classics is from the old Flame Restaurant. The sign, from 1961, was for an eatery that used to sit near the Desert Inn (where the Wynn now stands). The Chief Hotel Court is the oldest restored sign, a 1940s classic from an old downtown motel.
Progress on saving neon hasn't been so smooth. The Neon Museum has had no permanent home. The $100 million Neonopolis retail center, with a collection of its own neon signs, is dark and mostly empty. Just beyond is Fremont Street East, a new entertainment district meant to appeal to tourists and locals that features new and transplanted neon. The collections include a boomerang style sign that says "VEGAS" and a martini glass. Stores and cafes in the area have struggled with the worldwide economic meltdown that hit Las Vegas especially hard.
There are signs of delayed maintenance at the Fremont Street Gallery, with some signs sporting burned out sections. The signs are at their best at night, but they are sometimes almost a block away from the tourist areas. On the night I visited, the Red Barn martini glass was a gathering place for five men who were having their own drinks from paper bags. Even the most famous neon sign on Fremont Street has seen better days. The neon has gone dark on one of Vegas Vic's hands; his arm no longer swings out with an optimistic thumb up.
Not all the great neon of Las Vegas is in a museum. Hopefully the renewed interest in neon will keep some of the pieces from being hacked up and shipped off to a boneyard. The Flamingo is one of the few hotels on the Strip where neon is still the lighting of choice. The highlights are the two large corner pieces, which cascade warm pinks. In a crime against art, the city allowed a pedestrian bridge to Caesars Palace to be built a number of years ago that obscures the view of the best section.
The Holiday Motel, directly across from the Stratosphere Hotel near the corner of the Strip and Sahara Boulevard, is a candy-colored classic that has been kept up.
The Neon Museum staff is keeping an eye on neon they hope one day will come their way — bits of Circus Circus top the list. They also talked reverently about someday acquiring the signs from the Blue Angel, a one-star motel with five-star signage, including lots of white and blue neon, crowned by a statue of an angel in a blue dress on a pedestal.
One of the pieces of good news is the restored El Cortez. One of the city's oldest casinos, it was operated by gangster Bugsy Siegel before he built the Flamingo out beyond the city limits (a move that earned him a bullet in the face from unhappy mob financiers). The hotel recently installed a sign with both retro neon script and an LED screen used to advertise shows and deals.
It's a bit of a shotgun wedding between the old and new. But if it saves neon from the glare of the casino Jumbotrons, Vegas Vic would probably give it a thumb up. If he could.
TOURS: The Neon Museum offers tours Tuesday through Friday, twice daily at noon and 2 p.m. On Saturdays tours are at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. The minimum donation for tours is $15 per person. Reservations are strongly advised and tours frequently sell out. No same-day appointments or walk-ins are accepted. Visitors must wear close-toed shoes because of the gravel, some broken glass and exposed metal edges of the signs. There are many rules about the tour, particularly the use of cameras and video equipment. You'll be asked to sign a release form stating you won't use the photos for anything but your private use — a policy that hasn't stopped hundreds of images from plastering the Internet. The museum is rethinking its policy.
INFORMATION: The museum's office is open Tuesday — Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information and reservations, go to www.neonmuseum.org or call 702-387-NEON (6366)
CLICK ON IT: Check out the Neon Survey, a 2002 compilation of 80 significant neon signs in Las Vegas.