A group of friends strikes a fun pose for the camera in front of the iconic… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
LAS VEGAS — It sits along a stretch of median on the less-glamorous south end of this city's glitzy gambling Strip, a stubborn holdover from another era. Yet, as the days turn to night and back into day, it beckons as many tourists, human tumbleweeds and adventure-seekers as any newfangled casino.
They come to see, touch and photograph the iconic "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada" sign, a 1959 scramble of colors, typefaces and flashing light bulbs. They come in droves, as if on some obligatory Vegas pilgrimage, arriving in taxis, rental cars, stretch limos, golf carts, pickup trucks, motorcycles, double-decker tour buses. One woman even arrived on foot, pulling a suitcase — a wanderer defying the scorching desert heat.
The reason: There's just something, well, fabulous, about this sign.
For one thing, it's survived 53 years in a town with a penchant for bulldozers, wrecking balls and spectacular building implosions, where a 20-year-old resort is considered as ancient as the pyramids.
Designed by sign-maker Betty Willis, who never sought a copyright for her work and instead donated it to her beloved city, the 25-foot-tall kitschy cartoon has become a full-flush symbol of this gambling mecca, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"I just think it's cool. Who knows if those Rat Pack guys once stood here," Utah resident Marsha Hatch, 48, said on a recent Saturday evening. "It's like the Hollywood Walk of Stars, but it's ours. This sign belongs to Vegas."
Willis, now long retired, doesn't speak to reporters anymore. But in past interviews she said that back in 1959 — when Wayne Newton was a teenager and Frank Sinatra joined Dean Martin for the first time on stage at the Sands — the sign's diamond shape was unlike anything on the Strip. She added "fabulous" as the most fitting word to describe this 24-hour resort town.
In time, the sign became somewhat of a problem child for Las Vegas civic fathers, enduring more than one demolition attempt to make way for a more modern roadside greeting. The sign has been moved several times, deployed farther and farther south to remain on the outskirts of the latest casino development.
For years, picture-takers parked their vehicles on the shoulder of northbound Las Vegas Boulevard and dashed across traffic to the sign. While they were gone, thieves sometimes ransacked and even stole their cars, which were often left with engines idling. In 2008, the city built a small parking lot to handle the nonstop traffic flow.
The sign's reputation has risen in recent years. In 2009, city officials celebrated the sign's 50th birthday with a bikini parade. A few years before that, the sign's image was featured for the first time on the Nevada state license plate.
On that recent Saturday evening, the campy old sign sat impassively, like an aging rock star signing autographs.
The sign worshipers included stoners and freaks, with muscle shirts and tattoos in painful-looking places. There were clutches of women, dressed in colorful bridesmaid dresses, pouring out of limos with champagne glasses in hand. The languages spoken included French, Spanish, German and an African dialect.
Unlike the Grand Canyon or Empire State Building, this tourist site compels people to do something. Cameras snapping, they pick each other up, raise toasts, do handstands and cartwheels. Couples hug and kiss, groups of female friends line up like the Rockettes. Some lovers are even married here on the fake green grass.
Most visitors wait their turn patiently, as if in a holiday line to see a shopping mall Santa, anticipating the moment when the sign will be theirs alone — for that perfect Vegas memento to grace a refrigerator or work cubicle.
A number of them pose with Elvis impersonator Tim Ritchey, who says he works the sign a few hours a day for tips.
Ritchey says visitors have done crazy things here. Men have taken off their clothes; women have bared their breasts, Mardi Gras style. One malcontent tried to douse the sign with a bucket of paint.
Ritchey never tires of working the sign, often sharing the photo-for-tip business with faux showgirls and Big Bird look-alikes. "The question," he sighed in a drawl that was the real deal, "is whether I ever get tired of being Elvis."
He adjusted one of the fat rings on his hand. "Some days, this is just like any other job; you don't want to come to work. It's hard to be Elvis when you don't feel like being Elvis. But here I am, back at the Las Vegas sign."
Just then another carload of tourists careened north on Las Vegas Boulevard. If they cared to look back at the fabulous sign, they'd see a message scrawled in the same descriptive neon, but meant for those probably-now-penniless visitors heading southbound, out of Sin City.
"Drive carefully," it says. "Come back soon."