Gaudy neon creations tell the story of Las Vegas

Updated: 2012-11-18 07:59

By Timothy Pratt (The New York Times)

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 Gaudy neon creations tell the story of Las Vegas

Justin Favela of the Neon Museum, with more than 150 signs from defunct Las Vegas hotels and casinos. Isaac Brekken for The New York Times

LAS VEGAS - At a gala event before the opening of the open-air Neon Museum here, Brian Leming, a retired neon sign designer, stood surrounded by 150 hunks of metal and glowing glass. The museum, which opened last month after 15 years of effort, and its signs, dating from the 1930s to the '90s and arranged along a mazelike path, are increasingly seen as expressions of history, art and architecture, worth preserving.

Mr. Leming, 72, recalled a design meeting for the Stardust Hotel-Casino, then run by Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, a Las Vegas bookmaker and kingpin.

"We were sitting around a conference table and arguing about the right shade of purple," Mr. Leming recalled. "And I'm thinking, Jesus, they're discussing the nuances of purple, and this is Frank Rosenthal!"

Mr. Leming is a craftsman from a bygone era, when people heated and bent glass tubes, filled them with neon and argon gas, cut and shaped metal and fiberglass, and then hoisted them onto buildings and above roads.

The museum had drawn 20,000 visitors a year by appointment only, plus photo and film shoots, even before it officially opened.

Bill Marion, chairman of the museum's board, said the museum would get people to realize Las Vegas has made a significant cultural impact worldwide.

Mr. Leming had tried for 20 years to gain support for preserving the signs as many Las Vegas properties were demolished. "'If you're going to knock it down, let's save it,' I would tell them," Mr. Leming said.

Gaudy neon creations tell the story of Las Vegas

For years the signs sat in a dusty lot. Then in 2005 a quirky building with a roof shaped like a seashell, from La Concha Motel, was donated to the museum. The 1960s lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, would become the museum's visitor center.

Cutting the building into eight pieces, moving them six kilometers north and reassembling them cost $1.2 million. Adding offices, restrooms and an outdoor deck cost another $1.6 million.

When a place receives as many visitors as the Las Vegas Strip - 41.5 million passengers passed through McCarran International Airport last year - that can add up to a lot of stories.

Mr. Marion recalled a Venezuelan brother and sister in their 30s who teared up in front of the Stardust sign. Their parents had gotten married at the hotel but had never been back; the siblings grew up seeing the photo of the newlyweds on the wall.

On a recent tour, Justin Favela, the programs coordinator, paused at a giant H. "This came from the Horseshoe casino, owned by Benny Binion, who may or may not have killed someone," he said. "When I gave the tour to Binion's son, Jack, he said, 'You don't have to sugarcoat it.'"

Danielle Kelly, the museum's executive director, said the value of the signs went beyond personal memories, showing a "design that has happened here could only have happened here."

Several fonts were created and became widely used, including Atomic Age letters from the early signs of the Stardust, which was demolished in 2007. "All this was developed in a so-called cultural wasteland," she said.

The New York Times

(China Daily 11/18/2012 page12)