One of the hottest tickets in Las Vegas isn't Cher or Celine, Blue Man Group or Cirque du Soleil. It's a day trip to a gravel lot filled with scrap metal, miles from the Strip.
There, on Las Vegas Boulevard N, surrounded by a chain-link fence, is the latest incarnation of the legendary Las Vegas neon "boneyard." It's the kind of place where great signs of long-gone casinos and bars, motels and dry cleaners go to die. They are leaned haphazardly against each other and stacked in chopped-up chunks against walls. Dust, rust and daylight obscure the beauty of their once-lush oranges and blues, reds and greens that glowed in the night.
But this is a graveyard bent on a resurrection. The signs here are part of a new Neon Museum to open this year. Daily tours next to a neon-themed city park across the street often sell out.
"This is one of the few places where Las Vegas will celebrate its past instead of imploding it with fireworks," said Justin Favela, the director of docents.
Las Vegas is rediscovering neon after almost allowing a fade-out along the Strip. Casinos ditched the touchy tubes of colored inert gas for the ease of fluorescent lights under flexible glass. Later came the harsh, flashing, stadium-style LED and LCD screens that fill the Strip from the Luxor to the Stratosphere.
Neon was born at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and blossomed throughout the country, particularly in New York's Times Square and parts of Los Angeles. It lit up Tokyo's Ginza and London's Piccadilly.
But it was Las Vegas where neon visually exploded. By the 1950s, visitors were greeted at the south end of the Strip with the neon-lit "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. Neon splashed out from the Sands and Dunes, Stardust and Flamingo. On Fremont Street, neon turned midnight to noon around the Mint, Horseshoe, Fremont and Golden Nugget. The signs signaled that visitors had arrived in an adult playground. The neon cowboy Vegas Vic gave a thumbs-up and bellowed, "Howdy, pardner!"
Vegas' 'worst-kept secret'
The boneyard tour began last year when museum staffers went through the collection and selected 150 pieces to show tourists in informal tours twice a day. The cost: $15. Despite the obscure location, the tours are often packed. It's a mixed blessing for the Neon Museum crew. They're excited but also overwhelmed by interest in the tours.
"It's the very worst-kept secret in Las Vegas," said Bill Marion, a veteran local public relations executive and museum chairman.
"The neon of Las Vegas has both a national and international reputation and interest. We're not even advertising, but we can't handle the number of people who want to see it. When it opens up later this year, I think it will be one of the largest attractions outside of the Strip."
Out front, a large sign spelling NEON sits above a desert-style city park. Favela said the sign is copied from the neon script of famous hotels — the "N" is Golden Nugget, the "E" from Caesars Palace, the "O" from the Horseshoe and the other "N" from the grand old Desert Inn.
Inside the gates, there are pieces of the old "atomic"-style letters from the Stardust, along with pieces of its successor, the massive sparkling Stardust sign. The oldest piece is a 1930s chunk of the Green Shack. Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was torn down to make way for a Denny's.
There's the lovely swooping script from the short-lived heyday of the Moulin Rouge, the resort that broke the color barrier in 1955 (and was promptly shut down). Las Vegas would wait until 1960 to integrate casinos.
Some of the best examples are from long-gone motels. One of the most beautiful is for the defunct Yucca Motel, with bent glass yellow tubing that swirls into a version of the desert plant.
While neon is the main attraction, the boneyard has other fun pieces. A staff favorite is a golden lamp from the old Aladdin Hotel, where Elvis married Priscilla in 1967.
There's also a mullet-wearing metal statue that once graced a pool hall and the massive, scary pirate's face that topped Treasure Island. It fell victim to the end of Las Vegas' attempt to recast itself as a family-friendly destination.
"They found out the whales — the big gamblers — didn't like to be around kids," Favela said.
Reflections beyond gambling
The star of the nighttime neon experience in Las Vegas is the Fremont Street "gallery." The Neon Museum website has a walking map and list of the signs scattered about — nearly all within walking distance. Some of the earliest restorations, around 1997, were of a yellow lit lamp from the Aladdin. A glittering horse and rider from the long-gone Hacienda Hotel is high on a pole over the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street.
Some of the prettiest examples of neon aren't involved with gambling at all. One of the small classics is from the old Flame Restaurant. The sign, from 1961, was for a restaurant that once sat near the Desert Inn (where the Wynn now stands). The Chief Hotel Court is the oldest restored sign, a 1940s classic from an old downtown motel.
Progress on saving neon hasn't been so smooth. The Neon Museum has had no permanent home. The $100 million Neonopolis retail center, with a collection of its own neon signs, is dark and mostly empty. Just beyond is Fremont Street East, a new entertainment district meant to appeal to tourists and locals that features new and transplanted neon. The collections include a boomerang-style sign that says "VEGAS" and a martini glass. Stores and cafes in the area have struggled with the worldwide economic meltdown that hit Las Vegas especially hard.
Living legends remain
Not all the great neon of Las Vegas is in a museum. Hopefully the renewed interest in neon will keep some of the pieces from being hacked up and shipped off to a boneyard. The Flamingo is one of the few hotels on the Strip where neon is still the lighting of choice. The highlights are the two large corner pieces, which cascade warm pinks. In a crime against art, the city allowed a pedestrian bridge to Caesars Palace to be built a number of years ago that obscures the view of the best section.
The Holiday Motel, directly across from the Stratosphere Hotel near the corner of the Strip and Sahara Boulevard, is a candy-colored classic that has been kept up.
Neon Museum staffers are keeping an eye on neon they hope one day will come their way — bits of Circus Circus top the list. They also talked reverently about someday acquiring the signs from the Blue Angel, a one-star motel with five-star signs, including lots of white and blue neon, crowned by a statue of an angel in a blue dress on a pedestal.
One of the pieces of good news is the restored El Cortez. One of the city's oldest casinos, it was operated by gangster Bugsy Siegel before he built the Flamingo beyond the city limits (a move that earned him a bullet in the face from unhappy mob financiers). The hotel recently installed a sign with retro neon script and an LED screen that advertises shows and deals.
It's a bit of a shotgun wedding between the old and new. But if it saves neon from the glare of the casino Jumbotrons, Vegas Vic would probably give it a thumbs-up. If he could.