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.
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.
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:
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.
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.