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Vital signs in city's history

The budding Neon Museum works to save designs that lighted up Vegas' attractions.

June 10, 2007|Shermakaye Bass | Special to The Times

AT first, the caretakers at the Neon Museum's Boneyard in Las Vegas seem more cryptic than the Vatican: They can't disclose their location without setting up an appointment (well in advance, thank you); photography is permitted only for a fee; and since the Neon Museum is not quite a museum yet, one might even get rerouted to the organization's public exhibition, 10 nostalgia-inducing neon sculptures scattered around the Fremont Street Experience in downtown. So accessing the museum's outdoor salvage yard and restoration site might seem too big a hassle at first.

Don't let those precautionary policies discourage you.

The Boneyard, holding the largest collection of vintage Vegas signs in the country, merely wants to safeguard against theft and vandalism. And for good reason: The 3-acre property, which will double in size next year when the museum portion finally opens, is the not-so-final resting place for venerable artworks like the Silver Slipper sign, the Golden Nugget's bullnose (a large sign attached above a property's corner entrance), various Binion's Horseshoe signs and, most recently, the Stardust Hotel's landmark free-standing pylon sign -- the biggie from out front.

Over the past decade or so, these incomparable blinking, twinkling designs might have succumbed to the wrecking ball if Neon Museum board members hadn't dashed in to reclaim and restore them, thanks to financial help from the city, private donors and a few casino owners. Now, more than 100 belong to the Neon Museum organization -- and most of those reside at the Boneyard, awaiting a sweet hereafter of restoration, documentation and at some point, somewhere, reinstallation.

"These are the signs that we all grew up with," says Vegas native and Neon Museum board member Nancy Deaner. "When we were kids, they were huge, larger than life -- literally and figuratively. We just had no idea how huge."

Deaner, chair of the all-volunteer Neon Museum and one of the city's earlier neon preservationists, began taking an artistic-historic interest when her late husband helped form a citizens committee in the 1980s, with the goal of saving what they could of old Vegas' neon life.

In 1996, the group was absorbed by the city, and the public-private Neon Museum was born. It stored, and restored, its flashy wares at a water treatment plant until the YESCO sign company (which, ironically, had created many of the signs it would later salvage from demolished casinos) donated its boneyard, with at least 50 vintage neon signs, to the fledgling nonprofit. Today, that's the Boneyard.

But it's clear that many people, Vegas natives and tourists alike, have a strong attachment to these blinking sculptures that represent a particular place and time.

"So many of these signs were iconic," says Deaner. When she was growing up, she recalls, there were emblematic sculptures such as the original Hacienda Hotel horse and rider, first erected in 1967 at the long-gone hotel off Las Vegas Boulevard South; or the Aladdin's Lamp sign, circa 1966, which topped the old Aladdin Hotel, which was in the same part of town. Those and eight other pieces have been restored and installed along Fremont Street; in this way, the public can enjoy a bit of blazing glory while awaiting the signs' rebirth at the Neon Museum and park in 2008. When it opens, the neon "campus," as planners are calling it, will double the property size and feature the also-salvaged La Concha hotel as its visitor center.

Site manager Melanie Coffee (keeper of the Boneyard gate, as it were) says that until recently, few nonresidents knew about the neon compound. It was an insiders' project, largely appreciated by insiders.

Their goal was to salvage their city's million-watt heritage, or high-flying parts of it, before nonlocal collectors swooped in and took them elsewhere.

Nowadays, Coffee says, about 1,800 people tour the yard each year -- almost double the number from three years ago -- and the phone calls keep coming in.

As Deaner says, in the organization's earlier days, it wasn't clear how the public would respond to the notion of a neon museum.

"As I began working in the field, though, and began approaching it from a more sophisticated standpoint, I began to look at it more globally and more artistically," she says. "These signs have huge significance for people not just in this country but all over the world. We get calls from people from all over the globe. They want to know: Can they come see the signs? Is the museum open?"

The respective answers: yes and soon.

But whoever they are and wherever they're from, those who visit the Boneyard itself are usually moved, volunteer manager Coffee says.

"We get everything from graphic designers and artists to history buffs to Vegas history buffs to senior citizens who've lived here all their life," Coffee says.

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