It’s 9 a.m. in Las Vegas. The sun is piercing bright and it’s well on its way to being 42 C again today. My flight leaves in four hours — it’s the perfect time to squeeze in a tour of the Neon Boneyard.
Much like the historic signs of old Las Vegas here, I’m feeling a little bleached out after my weekend in Sin City. A little rusty, too.
Since 2012, this compact site (less than a hectare in size) near the Fremont Street Experience has welcomed more than 200 grand dames of retired Las Vegas signs.
Like a down-on-his-luck nightclub crooner given one more shot at glory, the boneyard is giving these signs one more chance to shine in the spotlight and saving them from the scrapheap.
It’s sobering to walk among this tombstone-like tribute where you can trace the evolution of Las Vegas from saloon-style gambling dens with sawdust on the floor to the mega entertainment palaces of today that litter the Strip.
Mitch, our guide on this hour-long tour, regales us with tales of the city’s glittering past. Over here is the sensuous curves of the Moulin Rouge sign, now arranged to spell out In Love, making it a favourite of wedding photographers.
The sign, designed by Betty Willis of Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign fame, hung for decades in front of the first desegregated hotel and casino in the United States, he explains. Opening in 1955, the operation was in business for less than a year. Multiple attempts to reopen the site have proved futile over the years.
As Kevin Cook wrote in Smithsonian Magazine:
the Moulin Rouge was “a neon cathedral dedicated to the proposition that the only color that mattered in Vegas was green.”
Over here is part of the Stardust sign that drew tens of thousands to the famous casino and hotel for more than 40 years until it was demolished in 2007. The lettering towers over us, all the better to attract gamblers from a distance.
The boneyard is a tight jumble of signs in various states of disrepair. The walkway is less than two metres wide and odds and ends letters are arranged here and there in the desert sand.
The city’s love of kitsch is well represented in the museum’s collection, from the giant martini glass to a massive Scottish bonnet that looks a little worse for wear.
Everyone who works here has their favourite sign. For Mitch, it’s the Standard Wholesale Supply sign where a scantily-clad redhead swings from a clock pendulum. It’s an odd sign for a family-owned plumbing company . . . but this is Vegas.
On the oldest signs, Mitch notes, you can see narrow pegs (about the width of a man’s foot) where employees would climb up without safety harnesses to replace the giant light bulbs high above the Vegas streets.
For the hard partiers and the losers taken by a gaggle of one-armed bandits or by a suave dealer at the beautiful felted tables, there is also a sign that promises a next-day reprieve as they get into their Buicks, Pontiacs and Fords for the long drive home:
“Snacks, cold drinks, film. FREE ASPIRIN & TENDER SYMPATHY.”
Just drive in to the Kenneth L. Lehman Five-Star Dealer,
More than Signs
Here in this boneyard are the echoes of Elvis, the Rat Pack, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, the atomic tests of the Cold War and the dancing ladies with the fantastic sprays of giant bird plummage on their heads and legs that go on for miles and miles.
The Vegas of today seems tame in comparison.
I am amazed that in a city fuelled by the constant need for reinvention and the American desire for bigger, bigger, BIGGER that these signs still exist at all.
Vegas is a city that has relished the destruction of its past, turning the demolition of massive casinos and hotels into televised spectacle, It is focused forward with the pedal to the floor. It lives fast.
It boldly claims (and remakes) the Eiffel Tower and the Trevi Foundation as its own, It is white jumpsuit Elvis tacky. It is the most American of any American city.
When the desert reclaims the city and the towers have crumbled, what will an archaeolgical dig find eons from now? Maybe some poker chips and a jumbo drinking cup from the pool at the Mirage?
And yet, old Vegas has me entranced. This is unexpected.
These old signs still have the power to draw us to them — like moths to a flame. At their feet, untold billions have been gambled away, lives have been ruined, families torn apart.
Yet, they remind us more of the plucky, daredevil attitude of the hucksters, the mobsters and the dreamers who made Vegas happen.
Here, they built a city in the desert that openly defied the stifling social conformities of middle America in the 1940s and ’50s. They glorified the excesses of American life and made it seem possible for anyone with the money to grab hold of the American dream.
And middle America and the world came . . . and continue to do so.
This Vegas is endlessly fascinating and worth seeking out.
If you go (and you really should!)
Location: 70 Las Vegas Boulevard North
Tickets: Prices range from $15 for non-guided tours up to $42 for night tours, which includes admittance to their new 30-minute Brilliant show. Ticket prices depend on age and time of day.
You can also get a deal by buying a joint ticket for the Boneyard and the nearby Mob Museum.
The Neon Museum night tours, where 11 of the restored signs are lit up, are the most popular and sell out quickly so do book in advance online. For more information: http://www.neonmuseum.org/
Keep in mind: There’s no reprieve from the hot sun in the Boneyard — unless, of course, you’re the woman on my tour who thought to bring an umbrella. Sunscreen, a hat and closed toe shoes would be a great idea — and a water bottle.
Other Ideas: If you decide to take in the Mob Museum, too, I would suggest walking there if you can stand the heat. It’s not in the best part of town (so I wouldn’t advise doing this at night) but there are more restored signs along the way on North Las Vegas Boulevard. The walk is about 20 minutes. Believe me, the airconditioning in the Mob Museum will be worth the price of admission!
Here’s a look at Brilliant, which I will definitely see when I return!
© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.ca, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.ca with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.