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Neon Museum illuminates old-school Las Vegas

Las Vegas' Neon Museum is open, with neon artifacts rescued from imploded casinos illuminating a bygone era on the Strip.

October 30, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • A sign from the old La Concha hotel is on display at the new Neon Museum in Las Vegas, one of scores of signs rescued as the neon era on the Strip fizzled.
A sign from the old La Concha hotel is on display at the new Neon Museum in Las… (Sam Morris, Las Vegas Sun )

LAS VEGAS — The afternoon light is fading as Danielle Kelly walks the place known as the Neon Boneyard. Night will soon overtake this gambling town, a time when that original bling — the fanciful curves of electric neon — for decades beckoned and bewitched.

Kelly reviews the metal remnants of cartoonish come-ons that once towered over the Moulin Rouge, Desert Inn, Golden Nugget and Stardust casinos, as well as wedding chapels, dry cleaners and motels. But time moves on, especially here. In a town addicted to reinventing itself, the wrecking ball rules.

"So many eyes have seen these signs over the years that they have this kind of power," Kelly says. "You can almost hear the thoughts of those who gazed at them: 'We're going to get married!' or 'Am I gonna win this time?'"

PHOTOS: Neon Museum

Kelly is the executive director of the city's downtown Neon Museum, which on Saturday officially opened its doors to the public — offering guided tours of the lights that once illuminated an era that featured colorful mobsters, cars with fins and the notorious Rat Pack.

In the 1980s, artists, philanthropists and businessmen formed a citizens committee to help rescue neon art from the rubble of imploded hotels. In 1996, the committee joined city officials to create the fledging museum. For years, the signage was warehoused on back lots.

Now, parts of 150 old signs are displayed on a patch of land near downtown once known as neon-lit Glitter Gulch. The original clam-shaped lobby of the historic La Concha hotel was relocated here to serve as a greeting center.

Some restored pieces from the museum's collection hang above nearby downtown streets. But at the Boneyard, the pieces remain rough and untouched, like unearthed archaeological artifacts. A towering pool-playing figure looms next to a massive skull once displayed at the Treasure Island casino. Nearby is a gold lamp that once graced the Aladdin casino, where Elvis married Priscilla in 1967.

Outside the museum sits the refurbished silver slipper that legend says once spooked Howard Hughes. The billionaire reportedly suspected the slipper that revolved outside the Silver Slipper casino was being used as a government surveillance ploy because it often paused momentarily, pointing at his Desert Inn penthouse. (Some say Hughes just didn't like the sign's light shining in his window, but he eventually bought the casino and slipper, which he had filled with concrete.)

"Whatever story you believe, there's an association between Howard Hughes and that slipper," said Robert Chattel, a historic preservation consultant working with the museum. "This neon helps people understand the history of Las Vegas, that it was not necessarily the Strip we know today."

Neon lighting — in which gas vapors carry electric current — dates to the early 1900s in the U.S. The strange new lights first appeared here in 1928 at the downtown Overland Hotel. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the gas-electric sign, "of the most modern design, [adds] considerably to the appearance of that section of the city."

After 60 years, the neon trend began to flicker. In the 1980s, Steve Wynn bought the Golden Nugget hotel and removed the neon in favor of a more muted exterior. "Some people thought neon was passe," said Dorothy Wright, coauthor of the book "Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon."

Today, a few businesses have remained true to the art deco lighting, but you have to look for it, Wright said.

Assembling the museum's neon collection has taken a dash of luck. And nothing tells the tale, Kelly says, like the story of the Yucca motel sign. Two years ago, Kelly got a tip that the rundown motel was about to be demolished.

"The craftsmanship was beautiful, with its simple arrow drawing the eye to the motel," Kelly said. "The yucca plant rises out of the arrow with its gorgeous curlicues of neon."

But the owner's son didn't want to pay to move the sign. So Kelly began a series of gentle negotiations. "I told him, 'We want to share this icon with people and we want to tell the story of your family business, how your father raised his family there,'" she said.

At last, the museum received funding to move the Yucca motel icon, which now takes its place at the Boneyard, among the growing neon lore of old-school Vegas night life.

john.glionna@latimes.com

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