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The Neon Museum’s ‘Brilliant!’ makes classic signs shine again

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The Neon Museum’s Brilliant! new look.
Photo: Steve Marcus

You know the Cinderella story: With the flick of a wand, a beautiful woman in a shabby dress gets transformed into a glimmering vision. This metaphor describes the sheer magic behind the new attraction at the Neon Museum. Brilliant! is a “360-degree audiovisual immersion experience” that applies the fairy-tale treatment to a collection of old, broken-down neon signs. The result is a 30-minute show that will melt the cold, hardened heart of even the most devoted Vegas cynic.

The biggest paradox about the Neon Museum is that so many of its signs don’t light up. The collection is extensive, but restoration is prohibitively tricky and expensive. Leave it to a tourist to create a solution.

Digital artist and experiential designer Craig Winslow, 29, had never been to Las Vegas when he was chosen as one of Adobe’s 2016-17 Creative Residents. Using his newfound freedom, the Portland, Oregon, resident took a road trip through the Southwest and convinced the Neon Museum to let him apply his unique style of art—projection mapping light onto “ghost signs”—to a back corner of their boneyard for a one-night experiment. The ephemeral piece was such a success, it soon grew into this permanent exhibit.

So how exactly does it work? Winslow uses photos, video and “3D photogrammetry” to create a digital model of each sign—down to the individual light bulbs—in the North gallery. Then he used software to animate the “lights.” YESCO sign company built two air-conditioned towers that house eight projectors, which splash 80,000 lumens of life back into the old signs. In short, magic.

But the signs don’t just light up again. They take the visitor on a journey through the history and mythology of Las Vegas. Nearly 20 songs provide the tracklist for this expert piece of time travel. The show begins with Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady,” as the giant sign for the now-defunct Lady Luck twinkles and dances in red. Later, the Terrible Herbst cowboy wakes up to Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Video of Liberace appears on a white grand piano for his rendition of “Strangers in the Night.” That same piano turns red, and the cowboy dons dayglo sunglasses during Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.” The show drops us off at our era with Panic! At the Disco’s “Vegas Lights.”

The signs form a circle, with viewers in the center, glancing this way and that, following the action like a reverse three-ring circus. The juxtapositions of signs that never appeared together in real life create an elevated experience. It feels like the first time you saw the Strip in real life, that giddy excitement.

During the show, guests aren’t allowed to record or take pictures (although there’s a brief time afterward for camera indulging). That’s for the best, since photos and videos can’t do it justice. It’s like trying to snap a sunset. The view is sublime, and it can only be captured by memory.

Brilliant Wednesday-Monday, hourly from 6-9 p.m., $15-$23. The Neon Museum, 702-387-6366.

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