The first five Vegas taxi drivers I asked had never heard of the Boneyard at the Neon Museum, a non-profit organization that rescues and restores the disposable neon signs the city throws away. Every evening at dusk there are guided tours through the Boneyard and through the past of Las Vegas – as twinkling and as garishly colorful as each other. Can there ever be a better match than Vegas and neon? If neon had never existed, Las Vegas would have had to invent it.
In fact, says our guide, Troy, neon was discovered way back in 1898, and was first used on signs in Paris in 1910 when the city of Las Vegas was a mere five years old.
‘Blue and red are the only two natural neon colors there are,’ Troy tells us. ‘You want white? You add mercury. You want other colors? You add other stuff.’
The fun and facts come pouring from our guide, every bit as entertaining as the signs themselves. When we start the daylight is still turning to dusk, and the signs sit there as drab and as dull as junk in a junkshop. But as the Vegas sky heads from grey to blue to black, the signs begin to come alive, the neon blood coursing through their veins again.
‘The museum started in 1996,’ our guide explains. ‘All the signs are donated, and the museum raises funds to try to restore them, which is incredibly expensive. But this is Vegas’s history….’
‘Half our signs are Yesco signs. The company’s from Utah and came to Vegas to make a killing, which it did. And still does. It made the Wynn neon sign for $12 million not too long ago.’
Twelve million bucks? Well the Wynn sign is 135ft tall and has a moving eraser which appears to rub out the graphics and replace them with new ones – a neon first.
The Boneyard is full of firsts, though. Here’s a sign for the Moulin Rouge which opened in 1955 as the first integrated casino… and closed six months later. Who knows why? In Vegas that’s a common question. Some people know but they aren’t telling.
‘The Moulin Rouge sign was designed by a woman, Betty Willis, who also designed the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign. Unfortunately for her she didn’t copyright the sign, which is why you see it reproduced everywhere.’
As we walk through the Boneyard, Vegas itself comes alive through the energy and stories of Troy.
‘Next we have Binion’s Horseshoe. Binion’s founder, Benny Binion, had these horseshoes at the entrances to the casino, so that people had the illusion of walking through a lucky horseshoe to enter the casino. Unfortunately an upside-down horseshoe brings bad luck – so maybe he did that deliberately. He also came up with lots of ideas to keep people gambling, like free drinks, and steak dinners for $2 at 3am. He knew people would come for a cheap steak dinner, whatever the time… and they would do what he wanted them to do: keep gambling. Benny Binion also said: “If you treat the little guy like a high roller, you’ll always be rich.” He was right.’
‘Lots of the signs come from downtown Las Vegas, around Fremont Street. Here’s Sassy Sally’s. This started as The Silver Palace in 1957. Today it’s a strip club, Mermaids, and right next door is Glitter Gulch. When Glitter Gulch was a casino in 1979 it had a sign of a cowgirl put up outside, Vegas Vicki. She was a companion for the sign across the street, Vegas Vic, the cowboy who went up in 1951. He was an excellent example of animated neon artwork. He smoked, he moved his leg, and he said Howdy Pardner every 15 minutes. The story goes that the Howdy Pardner was finally switched off in 1966 when Lee Marvin was staying nearby and complained that it was too loud and it was driving him crazy.’
And on we go, with stories that are true, maybe true, or ought to be true. Over here’s a neon duck that cost $250,000, over there an animated neon shirt, and over there an Aladdin’s lamp. It’s a dizzying dazzling tour from a guy who clearly loves his city and his signs. And you can tell it’s from the heart when Troy finishes our tour by reminding us: ‘We see our memories of Vegas sitting right here.’
They should put up a sign saying that. In neon, of course, so the taxi drivers could find it.
For information on tours visit the Neon Museum website.