It’s a lovely Saturday morning in Downtown Las Vegas, and we’re in the Neon Museum’s Boneyard, standing before the Moulin Rouge sign’s beautifully scripted font as our tour guide discusses the racial segregation of Las Vegas’ past. We’ve already learned about the 1905 land auction that gave birth to Downtown Las Vegas, and that a mere 90 years later, the fantastic lighted and neon signs that came to define the city were being collected by a local arts organization as the only souvenirs of a quickly vanishing past.
On October 27, more than 15 years after being established, the Neon Museum will open to the general public, offering a look at the history of design and architecture in Las Vegas, via the advertising that defined us. The moment arrives after years of hard work by a dedicated few, along with financial uncertainty, as the grassroots nonprofit sought to fund the rescue of signs amid many demolitions. So popular is the Boneyard that museum representatives are already recommending pre-purchased tickets for the $18 daily drop-in tours of the famous lot on Las Vegas Boulevard North, where the concentration of extraordinarily constructed large-scale signs provides a rich aesthetic walk down Memory Lane.
- Neon Museum Opening Party
“Too many people either deride our history or they don’t appreciate the quality and the quantity of history Las Vegas has,” says Bill Marion, Neon Museum board chair. “Las Vegas has made many significant contributions to pop culture, as well as culture in the United States. We need to stop thinking that Las Vegas is simply a kitschy town.”
The Boneyard’s historic eye candy also serves as a stepping-off point for so many stories. The Moulin Rouge, Marion adds, was not just the first integrated casino in Las Vegas, it was the site of the 1960 Moulin Rouge accord leading to desegregation in all local casinos.
Then there are the smaller tidbits: Various incarnations of the famous Binion’s sign are on display, evoking tales of owner Benny Binion, who started a trend on Fremont Street when he installed carpet in his casino. The Silver Palace, which opened in the 1950s, was the first casino in Southern Nevada to utilize “motor stairs.” It later became Sassy Sally’s, whose expansive sign is a Boneyard favorite.
With reverence, we observe the spade from the Dunes, the “Casino” sign from the Sands, the dazzling atomic font from the Stardust and the old blue letters that once lined the Tropicana.
There’s also signage from Fremont Street’s “motel row” and local businesses like Modern Cleaners and the Green Shack on Boulder Highway, which served chicken and whiskey to dam workers and other Vegas commuters during the 1930s. Signs that have been restored to working condition are featured on the Las Vegas Boulevard median near the Boneyard (the Silver Slipper and the Bow & Arrow Motel) and on Fremont Street (Anderson Dairy, the Aladdin lamp and the Hacienda horse and rider).
Getting the signs hasn’t been easy. Many were donated by the Young Electric Sign Company; others by property owners of buildings scheduled for implosion. But even when signs are donated, the museum typically must foot the cost to dismantle and transport, which can reach into the tens of thousands, depending on the size of the sign. Relocating the shell-shaped La Concha lobby to serve as the museum’s visitor’s center came with a price tag of about $1.2 million (to move and re-assemble). La Concha Architect Paul Revere Williams designed the lobby in the shape of a shell. Its swooping concrete roofline is only 3 inches thick, juts 5 feet from the glass wall and reaches 28 feet high. The cement and glass structure, built in 1961, had to be sliced up in order to travel from its original location on Las Vegas Boulevard to the Neon Museum’s Boneyard, where it now serves as the museum’s visitor’s center.
Dismantling and moving the iconic Stardust sign cost $200,000. In recent years, the museum has been able to bring in some money through photo shoots for glossy national and international magazines, movie spots and pre-arranged tours that commonly sell out.
As Marion says, “This is a unique museum. You won’t find anything like it in the world.”
And it’s the guided Boneyard tours that fill in the cracks and refresh the collective memories of the Rat Pack era, the architects who shaped the changing look of tourist corridors, the legalization of gambling and prostitution, and Howard Hughes’ local influence. As the 45-minute tour comes to an end, our guide hits us with a pop quiz before sending us off filled with memories and a new appreciation of our city.