Signs of frustration

Deciding to save Elton John’s Red Piano signs was the easy part. Now what?

John’s neon signs in their old Caesars Palace home.

When Elton John finished up his Red Riano show at Caesars this spring, he offered to donate the signs that hung above the stage to the Neon Museum. The six signs—five neon variations on the letters of his first name, the sixth a dazzling heart—are a loving pastiche of Vegas’ sign aesthetic through the decades.

The signs are huge—the smallest measures 10 feet by 20 feet, the largest 20 feet by 30 feet. Collectively, the signs weigh around 15,000 pounds.

To its credit, the city’s preservation community, including the Neon Museum, the city of Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs and the Las Vegas chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, has leapt into action to save the signs from the Dumpster. “These signs have tremendous interest as iconic pop-culture signs that also herald the era of great sign-making,” says Richard Hooker, senior cultural specialist with the city’s cultural-affairs office.

But now comes the hard part. Where to put them? And who’s going to pay for it? The signs were never designed to be displayed outdoors, and they obviously require a big space for display. There’s no such space at the Neon Museum. The airport and the convention center turned down feelers about housing the signs there. There was talk of storing them at one of the white-roofed pavilions behind the World Market Center. But the idea was scrapped because it was too expensive.

Sir Elton John: The Red Piano

The signs may even wind up leaving the city altogether—probably as long-term loans that would see them returned when an adequate space, and financing, is acquired. The AIGA suggested sending them to its National Design Center in Manhattan, but the signs are too big. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is another possibility.

“We don’t really want the signs to go out of town, but it’s better for them to have a home than not to have a home,” says Patty Mar Simmons, president of the Las Vegas chapter of AIGA.

In the meantime, they’re sitting in the Henderson warehouse of Nevada Sign Company. And owner Frank Steiner is not happy about it. Steiner claims his company was in talks to move the signs to World Market Center, and when those talks fell through, he volunteered to transport them to his own warehouse for temporary storage, in lieu of watching them be tossed. “I thought there was way too much value here. I hate to see them destroyed.”

Moving them cost him $10,000, and he says he had an understanding with several players involved that he would be compensated. So far he hasn’t been. Steiner wouldn’t name names. No one the Weekly spoke with was aware of any deal.

“I don’t think anyone made a promise, that I’m aware of,” says Hooker. “From the get-go the museum said they could not expend resources on the project.”

Steiner says three of the letters were vandalized before transport, but the damage—broken neon glass, as well as broken electrical components that help fire the neon—can be fixed. The structure of the signs themselves, he says, is intact.

Last week, Steiner told the Weekly, “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with them …” What’s clear for now, at least for Steiner, is who owns the signs. He does. “Absolutely. I’m the one who put out the money for it.”


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