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Museum puts neon signs in the spotlight

Today's megaresorts beckon diners with gourmet food and Picassos, but it was the soft buzz of an electric blue sign flashing "CAFE" that once did the trick just as well.

At once garish advertising and cultural heritage, neon is considered by many to be a truly Las Vegas art form.

Now the Neon Museum seems poised to fulfill a long-held dream to refurbish old neon, display the signs and point visitors on a walking and driving tour through the city's cultural history.

The Las Vegas City Council recently approved an agreement giving the museum a sliver of land to be used temporarily for storing a huge batch of signs that will soon need a home.

"It is so exciting to know that these signs will be saved in perpetuity," said Dedee Nave, a museum board member and planning chairman.

The city's oldest and biggest neon producer, Young Electric Sign Co., plans to close its sign "bone yard," where it keeps remnants and artifacts in need of restoration, to give the company more space for its ongoing sign manufacturing.

"We'll be clearing our bone yard, and any signs with historic significance will be going to the Neon Museum," said Steve Weeks, an assistant manager.

The sign company began designing casino signs in 1932, the year after gambling was legalized in Nevada, and has been producing neon ever since.

"One of the things that we're not very good at is preserving buildings," said Frank Wright, historian at the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society. "To look back at Las Vegas before all the themed resorts, you have to look at the signs that were on the buildings."

The Hacienda Hotel's 40-foot-tall horse and rider welcomed gamblers through the casino's doors beginning in 1966. Now restored and erected on a 24-foot pole at Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street, the famous cowboy was the Neon Museum's first restoration project.

The 1966 genie lamp from the original Aladdin Hotel, the 1961 Flame Restaurant sign, the 1956 Anderson Dairy mascot and the 1940 Chief Hotel Court signs have since been refurbished and erected along the Fremont Street Experience. Five more signs will soon join them.

Ultimately, the museum's bone yard will serve as a starting point for tourists and residents alike to view the restoration work that will turn castoff signs into public art.

The museum also plans to include some current signs as a living history element to its planned tour map.

Richard Hooker, a senior cultural program specialist for the city of Las Vegas, said, "Locals appreciate neon as much as tourists. So many of these signs are references to a Las Vegas they grew up in."

The Neon Museum will soon hire a development director to help with several fundraisers. Signs in the museum's collection cost thousands of dollars to restore.

A pool shooter sign, for example, is estimated to cost $1,700, while the Golden Nugget "bullnose" will run almost $200,000 and its old canopy $115,000 more.