Famed designer Willis never tires of, “What’s your sign?”

With display of her famous work in the background, Betty Willis describes designing the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign.
Photo: John Katsilometes

Betty Willis was asked the other night why the word “fabulous” was used to describe Las Vegas on her iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas neon sign.

She paused. It seemed that was one question she did not anticipate.

“There was not other word to use,” she finally said. “Las Vegas was fabulous, and we wanted to advertise that.”

Willis, still quick with a retort at age 84, was the star attraction Thursday night at a Friends of Classic Las Vegas panel discussion at Springs Preserve. The talk centered on some of the more famous Vegas neon signs, and any discussion on that topic must include Willis. Though mostly confined to a wheelchair these days, Willis's memory and delivery are as sharp and clear as the refurbished Welcome to Vegas sign. She was joined on the panel by Brian “Buzz” Leming and her friend, local portrait artist Lynn Weaver. Leming’s design work includes the Hacienda horse and rider sign (which sits above Fremont Street), the Rio sign, and the original Aladdin and Caesars Palace signs.

Willis is also known for her work on the Moulin Rouge and buxom Motel Blue Angel sign. But she is most famous for her design of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, which since 1959 has stood on the south end of the Strip just west of the old Klondike Inn location. Willis performed the work for the Western Sign Company, having been inspired by the wooden signs along the highway welcoming people to Los Angeles. Western Sign was looking for a single, neon-splashed visage to welcome visitors to Vegas. “The Resort Hotel Association got together and said they wanted a sign that was more descriptive of Las Vegas, and told us the approximate things they wanted on it We sat down and talked about it, and that’s how it started,” Willis said.

Betty Willis signs an autograph following her appearance at Springs Preserve.

Betty Willis signs an autograph following her appearance at Springs Preserve.

A few other nuggets from the 90-minute talk, and about that little sign:

-- Willis’ favorite sign was the one atop the old Mint Hotel. “I remember flying back from Reno once, I’d fallen asleep and it was such a short flight, I woke up and saw that sign and said, ‘Wow! Reno has a Mint sign just like ours!’”

-- The starburst at the top of the sign is a nod to Disneyland and Disney films, to promote happiness.

-- She designed the Moulin Rouge sign with bold, swooping strokes to draw attention to the brazen ambition of the hotel, which catered to an African-American clientele when the Vegas casino scene was segregated. “I wanted to make it as impressive and as happy and as good as I could,” she said.

-- The shape of the Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas sign was inspired by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company logo.

-- Willis’ fellow designers tried to persuade her to write, “Keep Nevada Green,” on the sign’s back (which would be read by tourists, many of them who lost money at the casinos, as they left town). Willis argued for a more friendly send-off. “I didn’t think (Keep Nevada Green) was very nice,” she said. “Repeat business is always better.”

-- The seven silver dollars that spell “Welcome” were chosen because they wanted the sign to look “lucky.”

-- There are now three Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas-designed signs in the city: the original, the sign on Las Vegas Boulevard North that reads, “Welcome to Fabulous Downtown Las Vegas,” and a third on Boulder Highway (or, the Boulder Strip) that marks the understood gateway from the Boulder Highway to Las Vegas. That sign stands just south of Sam’s Town and north of Tropicana Avenue and is several feet taller than the original.

-- Willis has never trademarked the sign. “It’s my gift to the city,” she said. “People from all over the world ask about it.”

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