The Neon Museum Las Vegas isn’t like any museum I’ve visited before. It has more in common with a junkyard, albeit a very tidy junkyard.
In other words, you won’t see precious items in display cases, and don’t expect the neon signs to be hung neatly on walls. Instead, the only way to see this collection of iconic Las Vegas neon signs is by taking a guided tour through “the neon boneyard.”
The Neon Boneyard Las Vegas
The neon tubes are broken. The sockets gape, empty of their incandescent bulbs or sporting shards of glass. The faded vintage signs lean or lie several layers deep along the cleared paths that wind through the yard. In the desert glare, it’s a melancholy sight.
In Las Vegas’s heyday, the motels and casinos that popped up in the Nevada desert needed to stand out. Bright signs, each one handmade from neon tubes, incandescent bulbs, or both, were expensive. Instead of buying them, the businesses leased their signs from the companies that made them. When they went out of business, or upgraded to a new, bigger, louder sign, the old signs ended up in their manufacturer’s “boneyard.” Scavenged for parts for newer signs, they deteriorated in the desert sun.
The Neon Museum is on a mission to collect Las Vegas signs and restore them to their former glory. So far, 11 of the signs at the museum are operational. Nine more have been installed along Las Vegas Boulevard as part of a long-term project.
Some of the signs in the “boneyard” are familiar, like the Stardust sign that, our tour guide explained, uses Atomic font. Apparently, anything atomic-bomb-related was popular in the 1950s, when people would travel to Nevada to watch the nuclear bomb tests in the desert.
Most of the signs – or single letters that used to be part of signs – are very large. They weren’t intended to be viewed from close up; they would have been mounted high on buildings or poles and visible from long distances. From nearby, they seem rough, crudely made, but precision in form wasn’t necessary.
The tour of the Neon Boneyard
As our tour guide steamed through his spiel – he packed an amazing amount of detail into an hour-long non-stop story – I ventured as far as I dared from the group, trying to get pictures without people. Visitors are not allowed to wander the yard alone because of the dangers posed by the broken glass of old light bulbs and the rusty edges of the signs.
After the tour, when I lingered to attempt a few last shots, a man approached me with “Can I help you with something?” – a recognizable code phrase for “You shouldn’t be here.”
The building housing the museum’s reception and gift shop is a sight in itself. Once the lobby of the La Concha Motel, built in 1961, the curved lines of its roof reflect the “space age” futuristic tastes of the “Googie” style. The giftshop, by the way, has some fun and unusual gift items.
Nostalgia in the neon boneyard
The signs in the “boneyard” evoke a certain nostalgia for a time of wild, optimistic growth. Las Vegas still thrives on that optimism, drawing millions every year to try their luck at gambling. And over-the-top neon signs are still produced and still beckon from casinos and hotels all over town.
Yet there’s a brashness to these old ones – the Neon Museum has signs dating as far back as the 1930s – that made me smile. In the post-war period, they promised riches, or they fed into America’s love affair with the road trip. Motels and diners catered to the new middle class, who owned a car and could hit the road, looking for adventure. Las Vegas was the place to get rich, get married, drink, and generally enjoy their new prosperity.
Even though I never visited Las Vegas in its heyday – I was just a child at the time – I recognized many of the signs. I could pick out the font from Caesar’s Palace, for example, and lettering from Circus Circus. From old movies perhaps? I’m not sure. In any case, it’s a nostalgia for something I never actually experienced myself.
My daughter, in her mid-20s, recognized little of it. Yet, as a graphic designer, she found the fonts and signage interesting and could enjoy the vintage feel of the place.
Visitor information: Neon Museum Las Vegas
The Neon Museum, 770 Las Vegas Blvd. North, Las Vegas. Opening hours vary. Book a tour through their website or just show up (as we did) and there might be room on a one-hour tour. Tours may be cancelled in bad weather. Day tours: $19; Night tours $26; Late night tours $28.
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