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Las Vegas’ Neon Museum offers a shrine to the city’s gone-but-not-forgotten icons.
Photo: Neon Museum
If the Young Electric Sign Company created a neon sign illustrating the Neon Museum, it might be an exaggerated, shiny, clean-cut, cartoon-like diamond, glimmering in the rough. Can’t you just see the flashing glow? Can’t you hear the buzz of the neon?
I’m daydreaming when museum guide Chris LeBlanc opens the chain-link gate to “The Boneyard.” LeBlanc is one of many volunteers at this nonprofit museum, guiding tours through the twisted signs and remains twice a day. “This is a part of our history,” says LeBlanc, as he guides about 10 of us through the yard. “We’re trying to restore and remember.”
The museum plays a big part in preserving Las Vegas’ culture by collecting and restoring its neon artifacts, and it all began with YESCO. One of the first sign companies to manufacture neon signs, YESCO would lease its work rather than sell it outright. At the end of the lease, the company takes the sign back and refurbishes it or puts it in the boneyard. Over the years, interest in the boneyard grew, and YESCO donated the pieces so the Neon Museum could share them with visitors from around the world.
Now, 12 years later, the skeletal fragments of 155 neon signs sprawl throughout two lots. With no plaques or historical descriptions, it doesn’t feel like your typical museum. Instead, there are discarded 40-ounce bottles, broken light bulbs, and jagged tubes of neon everywhere you look. That’s part of the allure, though. The Neon Museum isn’t a sanitized version of the past—it’s real, unvarnished, and in your face. Though it looks like a disheveled junkyard, the attraction is more like a scattered jigsaw puzzle of Las Vegas history.
Straight ahead, letters of varying fonts spell out “Boneyard.” Next to them is an ironic amalgam of signs: Aladdin’s giant lamp, a “Wedding Chapel Information” sign, and large, white letters that spell out “SIN.” Someone here has a sense of humor.
Some of the most storied signs, like the Silver Slipper, rest in this lot. LeBlanc tells us the tale of Howard Hughes, who lived at the Desert Inn, right across from the Slipper. A paranoid eccentric, Hughes was convinced that there was a camera within the shoe, keeping tabs on him. He was further bothered by the fact that it blinked and rotated, disrupting his sleep. “He asked several times if they could turn off the light, which they would not, and so he eventually bought the place and turned the light out,” LeBlanc says.
Other signs fill the yard, from the familiar to the less familiar: casinos that are still around such as Binion’s Horseshoe and the Golden Nugget, to the long-buried Lucky Cuss and Sassy Sally’s.
Some of the signs will be restored—for instance the 10 that make their home in an outdoor gallery along Fremont Street. But it’s an expensive process. Each of those signs, which include the Hacienda Horse and Rider, The Flame, and Chief Hotel Court, cost between $5,000 and $50,000 to refurbish.
Others will never make it out of the Boneyard. Mr. O’Lucky, for example, once waved at passersby from the top of Fitzgeralds casino. He was donated to the museum in good condition. Now, he’s a burned mess of chicken wire, lying prostrate on the ground. It seems a vagrant snuck into the museum and crawled inside Mr. O’Lucky to get warm. He started a fire, and it engulfed the not-so-lucky leprechaun.
Perhaps the greatest acquisition of the museum is the lobby of the La Concha. Paul Revere Williams, a notable African-American architect, designed the shell-shaped building in 1961. La Concha’s lobby was slated for demolition in 2006, but local preservationists stepped in and saved it. In 2007, the lobby was cut into eight pieces so it could be transported under nearby U.S. 95 and into The Boneyard. When it opens as the Neon Museum visitors center in late spring 2010, the site will be open to the public (now, tours must be booked ahead of time). It’s possible thanks to an $800,000 grant from the National Scenic Byways Program.
Even now, with limited access, the Neon Museum has become a cultural icon, appearing on The Travel Channel, “CSI,” The Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done” video, “Vegas Vacation,” “Mars Attacks!,” and more. It’s no surprise that the place is a media magnet. The museum is one of the most unique in the country and a tribute to years gone by in Las Vegas.
821 N. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas
Tours available Tues.-Fri. by appt. only