Buzz and Betty, Betty and Buzz. I first fell under the spell of Betty Willis and Brian “Buzz” Leming from the back row of a panel discussion about sign design in 2008, transfixed by their incredible stories and mind-bending ingenuity. I had already succumbed to the luster of their signs, but here were the actual people who’d imagined what Las Vegas might look like and then went to work making it real.
They told salty stories of inventing a magical cityscape, in a middle-of-nowhere town that took all of 10 minutes to cross on a bicycle. Everything was fodder for inspiration: magazines and comic books, TV shows and cartoons, books, movies, the library and even the five & dime. Art and design provided rules made for bending in the service of a sign’s fantasy du jour. And all of it became the fantastical architecture of this nocturnal oasis.
Listening to Betty and Buzz humanize the signs demanded an appreciation for the mechanics of the spectacular—the kinds of things that are only visible during the day. Signs are so honest and mortal and exposed in the sunlight. We can see their imperfections, the bits and pieces cobbled together and paint colors that just don’t match, the framework for the fantasy. The logic of a design is revealed, the thinking behind the placement of this arrow or that letter. At dusk they get gussied up until they unfurl their glory in the desert moonlight, like roadside showgirls: beautiful, vulnerable and real.
Betty Willis (1923-2015) was a trailblazer, a brilliant designer taking names in a man’s world. Her designs are like seashells, self-contained and brimming with a delicate intricacy but grounded in geometry and industrial materials. Buzz Leming (1940-2015) was a distinguished draftsman, a terrific artist who brought to life some of the most iconic casino signage. His designs were thorough and cohesive, each themed detail attended to and refined. Their creations make up the skyline known and loved across the globe: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Moulin Rouge, Bow & Arrow, City Center Motel, Blue Angel, Barbary Coast, Stardust, Westward Ho, Hacienda, Showboat, Las Vegas Club, Excalibur.
At the heart of this vision are the designers, just people. This wondrous cityscape was made possible by their Wild West spirit, set in motion by tenacity, creativity, resourcefulness and likely sheer will. Their realness and humanity—alongside that of many other incredible designers—made possible a vernacular architecture that arguably changed the face of modern design. They are the architects of an incomparable art form, a constant and dazzling reminder that anything and everything is possible.