[Weekly Q&A]

The Neon Museum’s Bill Marion on his favorite signs and preserving Vegas’ past

Bill Marion says the Neon Museum allows us to think, “Ya know what, Las Vegas is not a cultural wasteland.”
Photo: Bill Hughes

Now that the long-awaited pomp and ballyhoo has subsided and the Neon Museum is officially open, the Weekly talks with board chair Bill Marion about what it all means.

Why is this museum so valuable? Too many people either deride our history or they don’t appreciate the quality and the quantity of history that Las Vegas has. We have a habit of reinventing ourselves on a frequent basis. We destroy or tear down our buildings. Look at all of the hotels that really shaped Las Vegas in its early days that don’t exist anymore—Desert Inn, Stardust, Aladdin, a lot of properties with great stories and great history. These signs are the only remnants left. If they were to leave, we’d have no physical object to help us remember the past and to share those stories with future generations.

Like the Moulin Rouge? The Moulin Rouge is a wonderful sign, designed by Betty Willis, the famous designer of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. The hotel was the first integrated hotel in Las Vegas. It was also the site of the Moulin Rouge accord in 1960 when Las Vegas officially became desegregated and properties opened their doors to people regardless of race.

The Details

Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., $18 adults; $12 students, seniors, veterans and Nevada residents; free for children 6 and younger.
770 Las Vegas Blvd. North, 387-6366.

Favorite signs? I have lots of them. One of my favorite signs is the sign from the old Green Shack. It may be the oldest sign on the property, built in the 1930s, and it was a roadhouse at Charleston and Boulder Highway. It was the last place [you’d see] as you were headed out to the Hoover Dam and the first place as you headed back in. The sign is the menu. It says, “chicken, steak, cocktails,” and that’s what you got.

And you mentioned the Silver Slipper. Howard Hughes bought the Desert Inn because he didn’t want to be evicted because they were going to throw him out on New Year’s Eve. And then the Silver Slipper right across the street rotated and shined the light into his window, so he had his aides call over to see if they would turn off the light. Of course, they said no, so Howard Hughes then bought the Silver Slipper so they could turn out the light.

You grew up here. Was there ever a sense of loss when these buildings were destroyed? I remember when the old Las Vegas depot was torn down in order to make room for the Union Plaza hotel. I was a student at Las Vegas High School when that happened. I just loved that building, knowing that passengers were coming in, that people were traveling. And it was also this great art deco streamlined design, and so I dragged a friend of mine over there and went into—they had these incredible old wooden phone booths—and just made a phone call from there the day before they tore it down. I just loved the building so much that I wanted one last memory of it.

You’ve referred to the Boneyard as a multi-faceted museum. The museum is an art museum, because the best neon designers in the world were working in Las Vegas, and they almost had free rein. They were daring them to come up with incredibly outlandish designs. It is also a museum about architecture, because it’s in Las Vegas where the incorporation of signs into the actual architecture of the buildings may have actually gotten its start. The sign was the architecture.

What does the museum say about Vegas? It allows us to think, “Ya know what, Las Vegas is not a cultural wasteland.” Las Vegas has made many significant contributions to both pop culture as well as culture in the United States. We need to stop thinking that Las Vegas is simply a kitschy town. It really isn’t. There are some really truly wonderful contributions that Las Vegas has had to the zeitgeist of what it means to be American.

This interview was excerpeted from Las Vegas Weekly’s Radio Mag on KUNV.
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