“If you wanna get rich, make little people feel like big people… good food cheap, good whiskey cheap, and a good gamble. That’s all there is to it, son.” Our guide repeated part of this Benny Binion quote as we stood on a dirt path in front of precarious light bulbs clinging to a Binion’s Horseshoe sign.
We were on the 11 o’clock tour at the Las Vegas Neon Museum and I before we even stepped into the visitors’ centre, which is the original lobby building of the La Concha Motel, the history buff in me was beaming with excitement.
You’ve probably seen the “Neon Boneyard” on television or in movies before, it’s right behind the main entrance of the Neon Museum and there along the stone-lined dirt path sits pieces of Las Vegas’ most interesting history. There are about 150 signs in the museum’s collection and many more are over at YES Co.‘s private boneyard. The Young Electric Sign Co. has been in business for 94 years and is responsible for many of the famous Vegas illuminations known in popular culture. I couldn’t help but think about the famous faces that once looked up at these beacons as they hummed with life.
The Neon Museum was founded in 1996 and is a non-profit “dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic and cultural enrichment.” The two-acre campus includes the outdoor exhibition, where you can enjoy a guided tour like we did, and a Googie style visitors’ centre and gift shop.
Dedicated individuals from the private sector, as well as corporate and government entities, worked collaboratively to promote the preservation of these national treasures as significant pieces of artistic and historical importance. Each of the nearly 150 signs in the Neon Museum’s collection offers a unique story about the personalities who created it, what inspired it, where and when it was made, and the role it played in Las Vegas’ distinctive history. In addition, the Neon Museum collection chronicles changes and trends in sign design and technology through pieces ranging from the 1930s to the present day. Public education, outreach, research, archival preservation and a grant-funded neon sign survey represent a selection of the museum’s ongoing projects.
The Neon Museum has also partnered with the Las Vegas Signs Project, which I think is such a great way to extend the life of these icons. They are supporting the restoration of casino, restaurant, and landmark signs and placing them throughout the city. There are several already up along Las Vegas Boulevard and the Silver Slipper is perched just outside the museum. It makes me wonder if a program like this would work around here, pulling the signs out of the Museum of Vancouver’s Neon Vancouver exhibit to display as public art downtown.
I know traipsing around a museum isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of activities in Las Vegas but the designs, the history, and the fascinating life story of each bulb, tube, and painted figure is worth checking out. I hear that the nighttime tours fill up rather quickly so be sure to book your tour in advance.
The guided tours are one hour long and time just flies. Our guide was not only very knowledgeable about Las Vegas and Clark County history, he was first and foremost a neon enthusiast so he added something extra to the wealth of information we were presented with.
The Neon Boneyard is outdoors so make sure to bring a hat and lather on some sunscreen. All of the signs are also copyrighted so no commercial photography is allowed, but you can take photos for social media (and I’ve been given the green light for this blog post).