Collecting Las Vegas History With The Neon Museum



Flickering Lights & Neon Sparks: Neon Museum

Dedicated To Collecting, Preserving, Studying And Exhibiting Iconic Las Vegas Signs For Educational, Historic, Arts And Cultural Enrichment

The Neon Museum In Las vegas [Photo Credit: The Neon Museum]

Lights flicker from all directions as visitors make their way around a maze of giant neon signs at the outdoor “neon boneyard,” the clear, desert sky right above them. It's no surprise that night tours at the Neon Museum are constantly sold out.

Unsurprisingly located in Las Vegas, the Neon Museum is a 501c3 organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment.

The only museum in the United States dedicated solely to neon signs, the 200 signs cover a little over two acres, telling the story of Las Vegas, what was happening in the world at the time and the science behind the signs. Used as art and for advertising, neon signs have become the most prominent feature of Las Vegas' aesthetic.

The Neon Museum was born in 1996 when volunteers noticed that buildings – including historic ones – were constantly being imploded in Las Vegas. As a way to preserve the city's rich, colorful history, the volunteers started to collect neon signs from the soon-to-be-destroyed buildings. The Neon Museum was opened to the public in 2012, immediately capturing the public's attention.

“It's a really visceral feeling to be up close to them and realize the magnitude of these signs,” said Neon Museum Marketing Director Dawn Merritt. “To know the stories behind each of them, it's really thought-provoking.”

Neon Museum Sign [Photo Credit: The Neon Museum]
Metal Sculpture Of Man Playing Pool [Photo Credit: The Neon Museum]

One of the most popular signs in the neon boneyard is from the Moulin Rouge Hotel, which opened in November 1955 and closed its doors by December of the same year. It was speculated that the Moulin Rouge declared bankruptcy after banks refused to extend loans to the owner of the hotel: Sarann Knight-Preddy, the first African American woman to hold a Nevada Gaming License.

In the 50s, many black performers weren't allowed to stay at the Strip hotels or gamble at casinos or eat at restaurants in Las Vegas. The Moulin Rouge Hotel was their answer. Many visitors and employees at the Moulin Rouge became activists and supporters of the civil rights movement, working to end segregation on the Strip.

The sign was designed by a woman named Betty Willis, who also designed the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Signs” that are all around the city. The building was a prime example of cutting edge, mid-century modern architecture and the neon sign was designed to match, with large, looping white letters in a semi-cursive, bold script.

“My favorite sign is the Star Dust sign,” said Merritt. The neon sign – which came off the casino on The Strip that was closed in 2006 and imploded in 2007 – was from the 60s and the design reflected the times…of atomic tourism. “Atomic tests were marked as a tourist attraction here in Las Vegas because we are near the test sites. That sign really represents the atomic age.”

Old  Sahara Hotel Sign At Night [Photo Credit: The Neon Museum]

The Star Dust sign was 216 feet long, over 20 feet high, had 11,000 light bulbs and 11,000 feet of neon. In 1968 it cost over $500,000 for the pylon the sign rests on alone. The neon signs were large and extravagant, meant to be seen from miles away, to catch tourists' eyes.

Neon itself came about in Paris in the 1930s amd caught on in popularity and was used more and more around the world. Las Vegas' amount of neon signs only comes second to Tokyo, although most cities – including Las Vegas – have slowed down because of the immense costs of the signs and amount of money it takes to keep them on each month.

“These signs are important because they represent not only our hotels and motels, but family owned businesses and small businesses located downtown,” said Merritt. “They are an iconic art form closely associated with Las Vegas and it will always be that way.”

Not only are the signs important to Las Vegas' culture and history, they are a sight to see. High fashion magazines often use the neon boneyard as a backdrop and many weddings are held at the venue. There are also a lot of educational events for families and children.

But nothing can compare to the image of 200 neon signs all lit up, flickering in the dark, a reminder of what has come…and gone in the Sin City.

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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