How neon lit up Vegas

Neon lighting may have been invented in France and popularised in Jazz-era America – but it reached its peak in brash, booming post-war Las Vegas. Now the challenge is to save Vegas neon’s colourful history

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, May 2015. Photography by Tim White)

Back in 1958, the new Stardust hotel-casino’s neon sign was a blast of light that could be seen for 100km across the Nevada desert. The world’s largest electric sign – 66m long, 8m tall and with 2,200m of neon tubing – depicted giant letters in a Jetsons-style font, amid a whirring, orbiting solar system. Inspired by the Sputnik satellite and the atomic tests in the Nevada desert at the time, it was a riot of energy, fantasy and futurism that dominated the entire hotel front.

Today, neon signs aren’t quite as dominant in Vegas as they were in the 1950s and ’60s, when Tom Wolfe wrote about a city where “you could see no buildings, no trees, only signs”, and Hunter S Thompson saw neon forming “some kind of electric snake… coming straight at us.”

Many of the classic signs still remain, though, especially in the Downtown area around Fremont Street, from the Vegas Vic neon cowboy to the restored Silver Slipper on Las Vegas Boulevard. The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” neon sign is still the city’s most photographed icon, and Vegas is still the brightest place on Earth according to NASA, with billions of light bulbs and more than 24,000km of neon tubing.

Still, they aren’t building as many “neon spectaculars” these days, with many of the major casinos removing their neon signs and replacing them with giant LED screens, which effectively turn whole buildings into self-referencing TV adverts.

Enter the Neon Boneyard, a gallery/resting place for neon signs attached to the Las Vegas Neon Museum, where more than 200 signs and 400 pieces have been rescued from destruction and lovingly displayed at a cost of US$4.2 million (NOK34m). Rather than seeing neon signs as inducements to postmodern acid trips, the museum sees them as cultural artefacts to be protected at all cost.

“These signs are important not just as genuine works of art, but as pieces of living history,” says Danielle Kelly, the executive director of the Vegas Neon Museum, herself a sculptor and installation artist. “When we do tours of the Neon Boneyard, it’s not just looking at signs – it’s a tour of design, lettering techniques, advertising strategy, the development of the car, not to mention the stories behind these amazing casinos, motels and stores.

We treat them the way we’d treat valuable art.” The Neon Museum spent more than US$150,000 rescuing the letters of the Stardust sign when the casino was demolished in 2007, giving it pride of place among countless other classic Vegas neons – like the elegant, cursive sign for the Moulin Rouge hotel, designed in 1955 by Betty Willis, who also designed the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign; or the iconic camels of the old Sahara casino sign, which has now been replaced by a state-of-the-art LED sign for the new SLS Hotel. “If you just take the Stardust, it was really the first time that architecture, design and advertising all came together in one building,” says Kelly. “The sign was the building, and it was an advert for itself, which articulated this fantasy of the atomic age.

“The font, which became known as Atomic, broke all the lettering design rules at the time, and when you walked into the building you could hear the whirring mechanisms of the sign. It was game-changing.”

While Vegas became the apotheosis of neon, it was a relative latecomer to a phenomenon that was invented in France by George Claude. The engineer/inventor sometimes called the “Edison of France” first displayed sealed glass tubes filled with natural gas to the wonderment of the crowd at the 1910 Paris Motor Show.

Claude Neon Lights gradually started selling signs around the world, beginning in Paris with a 1913 sign for Cinzano vermouth, the first ever neon advert. But the real explosion of “liquid fire” began in US in the early 1920s, helped along by the first golden age of advertising in the 1920s and ’30s.

Claude, watching his invention almost literally explode across the US, turned his attention first to ocean thermal-energy conversion and then politics, first supporting a restoration of the French monarchy and then the German invasion. After the war, he was imprisoned for collaborating with the Axis powers.

“Neon’s main success story is actually quite short,” says Christoph Ribbat, the German professor of American Studies who wrote Flickering Light: A History of Neon. “In America, it was all about the ’20s and ’30s, and after the war it was starting to die out. Then Vegas gave neon a second life in the 1950s, and it became this kind of laboratory.”

According to Eric Lynxwiler, who runs neon tours in Los Angeles: “In the 1930s neon was modern and perky; it wasn’t until the ’50s that it became sordid and noir-ish, associated with liquor stores and motels. Both, to me, are fascinating.”

There’s certainly a crass element to the Vegas project, which was really kicked off in its current form by mobster Bugsy Siegel, who took over the Flamingo Hotel in 1946, and soon forced former owner William R Wilkerson into selling his shares under threat of death. Siegel helped finance and manage other casino projects, and his lavish spending and focus on PR – “maniacal chest-puffing”, as it was later called – set the tone for the modern Vegas casino boss. Though Siegel was shot dead in 1947, he’d set Vegas on its course.

While the nefarious stories of Vegas casinos play into the stories of the signs, both Ribbat and Kelly emphasise a different side of the story – that the people who made the signs were real craftsmen, and that designers like Willis and Raul R Rodriguez (the Flamingo Hotel and Reno’s Circus Circus casino) were genuine artists.

“So many things go into making a neon sign,” says Kelly. “It’s art, architecture, design and science, and bending the glass is a real craft that requires an artisan, of which there are fewer and fewer left.”

But there are still some. The greatest American sign company is the Young Electric Sign Company, or YESCO, which was founded in 1920 in Ogden, Utah, by English immigrant Thomas Young, who started out “with a bunch of paint brushes”, having quit school.

Young was both artist and businessman, and was quick to latch on to the possibilities of neon lighting, creating the first neon signs in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada from 1927. After opening a branch in Vegas’s Apache Hotel in 1933, YESCO began reimagining Vegas through signs, with the city becoming its biggest showcase as it grew to become America’s number one sign-maker.

The company has nearly 1,000 employees today, but remains in the family, run by Michael, Paul and Jeff Young, whose father, Thomas Young Jr, ran the company from 1969-88.

Though YESCO’s main HQ is in Salt Lake City, they still have a 400-strong sign factory in Vegas. “Since the war, Vegas has been our main calling card,” says Jeff Young, over the phone from Utah. “It all started with the Boulder Club sign in 1945, which was the first real ‘neon spectacular’. Tom drew the plans by hand on butcher’s paper, and the owners fell in love – they said they’d have it before they asked about the price. Then the Pioneer Club wanted a bigger, brighter sign and it really snowballed from there.”

YESCO would help create a chunk of Vegas’s most iconic signs in the next 15 years: the Las Vegas Club, the Glitter Gulch, Vegas Vic, The Mint, the Silver Slipper, the Golden Nugget, the Stardust and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, to name just a few.

It’s almost certain that Tom Wolfe was looking at YESCO signs in 1965 when he was on his way to defining the New Journalism with his catchily titled essay, Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!! “Las Vegas is the only city in the world whose skyline is made neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs,” he wrote. “But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless.”

But art history is where many neon signs are headed. According to Young, only around five of the 400 staff at YESCO’s Vegas factory work in traditional neon sign-making. Most of the rest are working on digital displays, which have taken off since YESCO installed the first four-colour LED sign at the Caesars Palace casino in 1984.

“For now, that’s our future,” says Young. “But neon will always be a part of what we do, and what’s amazing is that a well-made neon light from 1930 will still shine as bright today as it did then. It’s incredible that that particular piece of technology has endured the way it has.”

While YESCO continues to make and maintain neon signs in Vegas, notably the “Welcome…” light, the company also donated a sizeable collection to the Neon Museum and its Neon Boneyard, including the likes of the Stardust sign. “Once a sign is here,” says Danielle Kelly, “we’re also saving the story of that motel or that dry-cleaner. We’re saving a story about America and a tradition of craftsmanship that we’re in danger of losing.” History may be moving on, but the lights are still shining.

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