Iconic Neon Sign Survives Vegas Makeover Betty Willis, now 83 years old, designed the iconic "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign at the edge of the city. Many vintage neon signs haven't survived the various makeovers the city has seen in recent years. But this one landmark sign is still standing.
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Iconic Neon Sign Survives Vegas Makeover

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Iconic Neon Sign Survives Vegas Makeover

Iconic Neon Sign Survives Vegas Makeover

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Many cities now try to save iconic local architecture. Las Vegas is so busy growing, it practically revels in bulldozing it. But one plucky little neon sign is beating the odds in Vegas almost fifty years after the lights went on. Adam Burke has the story of that sign and the golden age of Vegas neon.

ADAM BURKE: Okay, let's get one thing straight right off the bat. Being a sign designer - even a celebrated sign designer - isn't all wine, roses, and smug satisfaction. A sign can haunt you.

Ms. BETTY WILLIS (Las Vegas Sign Designer): Sometimes you think oh, why didn't I do that different?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: And what haunts 83-year-old Betty Willis about her Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign is the loose cursive script she chose for the word fabulous, which she thinks is not entirely fabulous.

Ms. WILLIS: The F doesn't go with the rest of the word. I've wished lots of times that they'd put a little bit better lettering on them, but I guess people don't notice it.

BURKE: No, they probably don't notice it. Now let's have a look at that sign.

(Soundbite of music)

BURKE: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada it says. Seven circles and a line across the top with red neon letters spell out the word welcome. A white, diamond shaped cabinet carries the rest of the test printed across its face. Trim it with gold and flashing bulbs that race and chase around the periphery. Crown it with a slender four-pointed star borrowed from Disney, and you have the city's most famous sign. Maybe the world's.

Ms. WILLIS: It took us quite a while to design it, because we gave it a lot of thought. And on the back, we put drive safely and come back soon. Everybody wanted us to put keep Nevada green.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

BURKE: The longer you stare at it, the more bewitching the sign becomes. But its destiny as Vegas' iconic sign wasn't always recognized. In fact, when it went up in 1959, the sign was one of many fabulous neon works on display - by no means the most dazzling.

(Soundbite of music)

BURKE: 1959 - Louis Prima was romping at the Sahara lounge. A 15-year-old Wayne Newton just breaking into show business at the Frontier Casino.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: And now ladies and gentlemen, the Sands Hotel proudly presents direct from the bar, Dean Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

BURKE: And that was the year Frank Sinatra joined Dean Martin on stage for the first time at The Sands - the Las Vegas clubhouse for a tribe known as the Rat Pack.

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer, Actor): Listen, I want to talk to you about your drinking.

Mr. DEAN MARTIN (Singer, Actor): What happened? I miss a round?

Mr. SINATRA: No, you didn't miss around. I want to talk to you about the amount that you drink.

Mr. MARTIN: Let's have a drink.

Mr. SINATRA: What? You are drinking.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, is that my hand?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: Mob run casino's had plenty of world-class performers. But outside on the strip, the stars were giant neon signs that vied for the attention of motorists - each one a siren song of light and color.

(Soundbite of music)

BURKE: Neon had been a mainstay in Vegas for decades, but this was the era when designers pushed the limits of the form. They tired things with neon no one had ever imagined. Signs grew enormous, sophisticated, and sculptural.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALAN HESS (Author): They dominated the skyline.

BURKE: Alan Hess is the author of Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture.

Mr. HESS: And in an environment of one and two storied, low buildings hugging the desert floor, they really stood out. They were astonishing.

BURKE: The Thunderbird, the Flamingo, the famous Stardust which had a swirling cloud of neon stars and giant Jetson-style lettering that seemed to float in the night sky. And then there was the 200-foot sign in front of the Dunes Hotel.

Mr. HESS: It had this silhouette of an onion dome, of a mosque almost, fitting with the Dunes - the desert imagery. But it also had this extraordinary phallic overtone as well - especially when the neon was added to it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HESS: The sign would literally erupt in light and action and movement. It would shoot upwards to the top, and then the letters of the U-N-E-S would flash on and then they would start to sparkle.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HESS: It had the power of a Saturn rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral for the moon. But it was completely silent.

BURKE: But Las Vegas is a city that eats its own young - at least when it comes to architecture.

Unidentified Man: Captain of the Britannia…

(Soundbite of a woman screaming)

Unidentified Man: …are you ready, sir? Prepare a broadside.

BURKE: And while it took decades for neon's luster to fade, a heavy symbolic blow came finally in 1993.

Unidentified Man: Ready, aim, fire.

BURKE: That was when casino owner Steve Wynn had the Dunes Hotel imploded to make way for a new luxury resort. In a spectacle that included pyrotechnics and mock cannon fire from Treasure Island, the Dunes collapsed in smoke and flames.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BURKE: And the sign went with it.

(Soundbite of crowd screaming)

Mr. HESS: It was like blowing up the Mona Lisa or something. It was a great work of art. It could have easily been taken down carefully and moved elsewhere, but it's not. It's scrap metal some place.

BURKE: Today, most of the great neon signs along the strip are either gone or slated to be taken down to make room for more of those giant, luminous buildings that now crowd the boulevard like planetary clusters. But so far, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign has escaped the dynamite and the wrecking ball. You can still find it planted in the median just south of the strip. It's ascended to what you might call sign heaven by becoming a destination in its own right and a symbol for the city itself. Arguably, the symbol.

(Soundbite of music)

BURKE: And because Betty Willis chose not to copyright it, the image has been replicated on millions of t-shirts, key chains, silverware, and piggy banks.

Ms. WILLIS: I've been down and looked at the displays at the souvenir shops where they have counters and counters loaded with things that display the sign on it. Some of them really raunchy, some of them nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: Willis deserves plenty of credit for creating a sign that's aged so gracefully. It was her design instinct after all that knew what to do with neon. And perhaps as importantly, what not to do.

Ms. WILLIS: Graphics and the style of lettering, the colors you use -everything ties in if you work it properly. If you just have all white neon and no shape or excitement, no flashing - it's probably the library.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: White neon? In a library? Maybe. But only in Las Vegas. Adam Burke, NPR News.

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