The Neon Museum, also creepily but fondly referred to as the neon boneyard, is the final resting place for many iconic neon signs from Las Vegas’ yesteryears. These were the days when the Rat Pack ran the streets with curvy women and questionable judgement. The blinking neon lights illuminating their paths to whatever mischief and mayhem may lie ahead. Funny how some things never change.
Today, Vegas has a reputation for everything that’s flashy and new, but the Neon Museum has made it their mission to preserve the past. And we owe them, big time. More than 250 of Las Vegas’ iconic neon signs are on display for new generations to enjoy. It’s rusted, it’s retro and it reeks of old Vegas.
The Neon Museum night tours are extremely cool and one of the best ways to beat the heat if you're visiting Vegas in the hotter months. It's also a pretty cool place to take your kids if you're looking for family-friendly things to do in Las Vegas as well.
La Concha Motel
But it’s not just the signs that are of major historical relevance. The retro La Concha visitors’ center at the Neon Museum is listed on the State of Nevada’s Register of Historic Places. Built in 1961, it was a former motel lobby on South Las Vegas Boulevard that was disassembled and moved to its current home at the Neon Museum in 2006. That may not sound like a big deal if you’re from the east coast of the United States, but in Vegas years, it’s downright antique.
For those of us who know a thing or two about art and architecture, La Concha is a flawless example of Googie design. For the rest of us, it got a far-out Jetsons vibe. With mid-century lines and sails that utilized ultra-thin shell concrete and glass to resemble a seashell, it was immediately recognizable from the street. And that was the thing about Googie style, it was designed to pique the curiosity of the occasional passersby so they'd stop and come inside. Who needs a billboard when you’ve branded yourself that well?
Paul Revere Williams
So why should you care? The motel was designed by Paul Revere Williams, California's first licensed African American architect and the first black American permitted to be a member of the American Institute of Architects. Williams was a pioneer who began designing in the early 1920s, when as a black man, it was illegal for him to spend a single night in the same neighborhoods where he was designing homes. But he refused to be deterred, even teaching himself to draw upside down so his white clients wouldn’t be uncomfortable sitting next to him.
He’d go on to not only design La Concha’s lobby, but homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and of course, Cary Grant. When his residential properties come on the market today, which isn’t very often, they’re snapped up almost immediately by folks like Denzel Washington and Ellen DeGeneres. The La Concha visitors' center is one of the few preserved examples of the Googie roadside design still left. And it's a stellar one at that.
Take a closer look at the absolutely fascinating history of 10 signs you can’t miss at Las Vegas' Neon Museum:
The Moulin Rouge
The soft, sweeping lines of the Moulin Rouge’s understated, but elegant marquis, are anything but indicative of the turbulent times in which it was constructed. In the 1950s, segregation was so prevalent in Las Vegas, the city was called the Mississippi of the West. African Americans couldn’t stay, gamble or attend shows in the hotels on the Strip. Even legendary artists like Sammy Davis Jr. could perform in the hotels, but couldn’t stay in them.
But when the Moulin Rouge opened in 1955, it became the first integrated hotel in the city. The sign itself was designed by Betty Willis, and for all intents and purposes, she was Las Vegas royalty. But you may know her for her more famous (albeit a little more recent) piece: the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. Willis, one of the rare female neon sign designers, drew each letter of the Moulin Rouge’s sign by freehand because she couldn’t find a font she liked. Nothing like taking matters into your own hands, right? Let’s all take a moment to enjoy this feminist flex.
When you look up “flamboyant” in the dictionary, the definition is usually accompanied by a photo of the one and only, Liberace. Between the 1950s and 1970s, he was the highest-paid entertainer on the planet. And with money comes extravagance. As one of the most famous Las Vegas entertainers of all time, he built a lavish life in Sin City based on glamour and excess. Basically, he fit right in. It’s only fitting that once the Liberace Museum shut down, the Neon Museum got their sign featuring his handwritten autograph immortalized in all its neon glory. This is also one of the Neon Museum’s fully restored signs. At night, it glows hot pink. Because, what other color would it be?
OK, this isn’t just one sign – it’s several. There are so many individual letters strewn about in the Neon Museum that it feels a little like your childhood alphabet soup. These letters are from multiple discarded signs from throughout Vegas, but they make you feel like you’ve stumbled upon the single most important garage sale of all time. The letters are so rad, the museum has turned photos of them into magnets so you can take home a piece of history. I highly recommend you buy a few of them as souvenirs. Not only are you helping this non-profit establishment preserve national treasures, you can teach your kids to spell their names or spell out really bad words that’ll make you laugh every time you open the fridge.
The Aladdin Lamp
The Aladdin opened in 1966 and like most of the beloved tourists who come to Vegas, ran out of money. But a raven-haired man on a white Arabian horse (no, seriously), came to save the day. Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, bought the hotel in the ’80s. After switching hands on a few more occasions throughout the years, it finally closed for good. Today, Planet Hollywood sits on the property. Kinda makes you wonder what would’ve happened if they would’ve actually rubbed that lamp.
The bright, larger-than-life letters represent a booming era in Las Vegas. The atomic age (get it?). Back then, Vegas was the closest city to the atomic testing sight, and many of its workers lived here. Fun fact: they still do. This big, beautiful lady dates back to 1958, while the stars behind it were added from a 1960s roadside sign. Both were rescued before the Stardust was imploded in 2006, the year before I moved to Vegas. It’s one of the biggest signs in the collection, and pretty much epitomizes exactly what you’d hope a neon boneyard would look like.
Steiner’s Cleaners “Happy Shirt”
Surprised to see a dry cleaner sign on this list? You won’t be after you hear the story behind it. Steiner’s laundered costumes for many of Vegas’ original elite entertainers, like Elvis and Liberace. So what does it take to be the who's who of celebrity laundry services? Here’s a fun fact: After each nightly show, Steiner’s removed, cleaned, and then reapplied all the rhinestones on their costumes by hand. To put that into perspective, there were more than 10,000 individual crystals on a single cape. And both Elvis and Liberace were known for multiple costume changes in a single show.
In a true sign of the times (no pun intended), the “happy shirt” used to have a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, but he’s since kicked the bad habit. He was once animated and waved his arms up and down doing a little happy dance because, you know, everybody loves clean clothes.
First a pharmacy, then the first two-story casino in Las Vegas with motorized stairs (that’s an escalator for all you scratching your heads), called the Silver Palace. The building was reinvented a few times over the last few decades and became Sassy Sally’s in the 1980s. It was located on the northwest corner of Fremont and First Streets. I love the kitschy “under the big top” feel with curly letters, round bulbs and the red and gold stripes.
When people ask me what it's like to live in Las Vegas, I always say it's a lot like running away with the circus. And this neon sign is pretty much the embodiment of that. Also, I’m pretty sure the two dollar-sign shaped “S” letters in Sassy were inspired by all the casino losses over the years.
City Center Motel
Yeah, this is definitely not like the City Center consisting of the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Aria, Crystals Shopping Center and Vdara. But it’s still cool for a couple reasons. First, although this can’t technically be proven, it’s suspected that the City Center Motel marquis was, yet another sign done by our beloved neon rockstar Betty Willis. This sign may not have its own parking lot like its more famous relative, the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, but it’s no shrinking violet either. Second, you can still see the brush strokes from the sign’s painter, done in 1957, and the glass tubing for each of the letters was bent by hand. It’s got a cool West Coast - SoCal kind of vibe with a funky cityscape silhouette perched on the top.
In its heyday, the original Sahara was a sexy adult playground – a place to see and be seen. When the Moroccan-themed hotel opened in 1952, there were 1,720 rooms on 20 acres of land. It shot to stardom when famed Hollywood playboys, the Rat Pack and their endless rotation of Hollywood starlets began frequenting the place. The hotel also hosted the Beatles during the 1960s British Invasion, plus a slew Hollywood film stars like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. The Sahara’s camels and carefully-drawn font were chosen to express the beauty, exoticism and mystery of far-off lands.
The Neon Museum sign
It doesn’t have to be old to be appreciated. The Neon Boneyard Park sign is an appropriately vintage homage to some of our favorite pieces in the museum. The “N” is from the Golden Nugget font, the “E” from Caesars, an “O” from Binion’s, and the Desert Inn “N” are aligned with the stars from the Stardust and the starburst from the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. The neon letters and stars are mounted on a grid like the Sands Hotel sign, which lives on forever in a 1960 publicity still for the movie “Ocean’s 11.”
Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last ten years. Her work has been featured in Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.