Where Spectaculars Retire: Las Vegas Neon Museum

When you think “Las Vegas,” what comes to mind?

I bet neon signs — “spectaculars” as the largest of them are called — will be high on the list. They flourished in this desert town as it grew from a dusty railroad outpost in 1913 to the flashy, decadent oasis it is today. With LED and LCD lighting now leading the way, neon remains a prominent part of the city’s identity. A stroll on the Fremont Street, Las Vegas’ “old town,” still gives you a flavor of what it was like in the Rat Pack heyday, but no Las Vegas experience is complete without a visit to the neon boneyard, the Las Vegas Neon Museum, where spectaculars come to retire.

Night falls over Las Vegas Neon Museum

To roam the boneyard, you must be part of an hour-long tour (book in advance). We chose a sunset tour — the best of both worlds: As you shuffle through, shadows lengthen, and, one by one, the most famous of the boneyard’s denizens come to life, lit up once more.

Tour at the Las Vegas Neon Museum at dusk

The Moulin Rouge Casino sign: In 1955, this was Las Vegas’ first desegregated hotel.

Rat Pack in Las Vegas

The Rat Pack at play: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas

My favorite was the sign from the Moulin Rouge Casino. When it opened in May 1955, the Rouge was promoted as “the nation’s first major inter-racial hotel.” I had no idea that Las Vegas was segregated until 1960. African Americans could not live or own businesses outside the Westside, a ten-square block area across the railroad tracks from Fremont Street. They were also barred from gambling, attending shows, or staying at the Las Vegas casinos. Sammy Davis Jr., with Lena Horne and Nat King Cole one of the most popular Las Vegas entertainers, remembered those days: “In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off the stage, we were colored again… the other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage.” In this context, the Rat Pack shenanigans gain a new undertone.

Despite immediate popularity, the Rouge closed only five months after its debut, under murky circumstances, but its role in Las Vegas history was not yet over: In 1960, The Moulin Rouge Agreement was signed at the empty hotel, desegregating the city.

And as for the Rouge sign itself, it, too, has an interesting past: Its creator, Betty Whitehead Willis, one of the few women among neon sign designers of the day, also designed the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, which has defined the city since 1959.

Here are some of the boneyard’s other memorable mentions:

1940s Wedding Information sign in Las Vegas Neon Sign Museum

This classic “fishtail” sign once advertised a quick wedding venue. In the 1930s and 1940s, quick divorces and, later, weddings (no waiting periods or medical exams needed!) created a new kind of tourism.

Las Vegas Neon Museum signs

Lady from the China Garden Cafe, among others.

Yucca neon, Las Vegas Neon Museum

This intricate sign shone over The Yucca Motel, one of many motels with memorable names (The Blue Angel, The Bow & Arrow, The Blue Onion) that sprung up in the 1950s and ’60s.

Sahara sign, Neon Museum, Las Vegas

The Sahara was one of the Rat Pack’s favorite hangout spots and, in 1959, sported the first high-rise tower on the Las Vegas Strip.

Pool Player from Doc and Eddy's, Neon Museum

The pool player from Doc and Eddy’s pool hall, a bit rusty now — the museum staff calls him “the Mullet Man.”

Stardust neon sign, Las Vegas Neon Boneyard

The futuristic sign from The Stardust, demolished in 2006.

Aladdin's lamp, Neon Museum

The Aladdin’s magic lamp–this one was the casino’s second, from its 1976 $60 million renovation. The Aladdin, too, is no more.

Treasure Island Pirate Skull, Neon Museum

The pirate skull marquee from Treasure Island lost its place when the casino rebranded. Look up the museum on Google Earth, and the skull will stare back at you.

At the end, don’t miss the museum’s Visitor’s Center. You are standing in the clam-shaped lobby of La Concha. This 1961 motel was designed by architect Paul Revere Williams, the first African American to be inducted into the American Institute of Architects. La Concha’s sign, echoing the lobby’s poured concrete shape, is at the entrance to the boneyard.

La Concha, Neon Boneyard, Las Vegas

When we left, Las Vegas just woke up for the night, bright and shiny as ever. Its past glowed behind us. All in all, another memorable sunset.

Lit up signs at the Las Vegas Neon Museum

7 thoughts on “Where Spectaculars Retire: Las Vegas Neon Museum

    • I know! And the Westside was terrible — no running water, no sewage lines in the 1950s, all that poverty across the road from the neon and high life of Fremont. If not for this museum, I would have never learned about any of this. Nowhere else in Vegas this history exists.

      Watching the signs come alive was really wonderful. I hope you get to see this place–it is small, but truly remarkable. And you can feel it’s a labor of love for all involved.

    • It was a great change of pace — and, really, the ONLY place I learned of the city’s history. Another favorite escape for us is the Red Rocks Canyon. Have you been? About 20 minutes from the strip. Beautiful and wild.

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