July 20, 2012

Summer League Side Trip: The Boneyard

Neon Museum Sign: N from the original Golden Nugget; E from Caesar's Palace; O from Binion's Horseshoe and N from the Desert Inn.
For years, I have been insisting that the only reason I have left to visit Las Vegas is to see the Neon Museum's Boneyard. While this isn't really completely true, since I'll probably go back to Vegas as long as the NBA Summer League is held there, I have wanted to visit the Boneyard for years and decided 2012 was the year. In case you haven't heard of it, the Neon Museum was established in 1996 to collect and display neon signs which they describe as the classic Las Vegas art form. The museum doesn't yet have a traditional museum building but instead displays its signs in three locations: an open gallery at the Fremont Street Experience; a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard between Sahara Avenue and Washington Avenue; and the Boneyard, an open lot littered with about 150 old signs. My Saturday morning in Vegas was spent at the latter.

Sassy Sally's: While the casino is gone, Sassy Sally remains in place on Fremont Street.
When I go on vacation, I usually get to know as much as possible about my destination. I research history before departing; visit significant historical and architectural sites; learn about the local cuisine and music; and generally understand where I am going in depth so I can fully appreciate all that the place has to offer in the little time I am choosing to stay there. 2012 represented my 14th trip to Las Vegas and I have never, EVER done any of that. I typically just show up, wander around, gamble a little, maybe go to a show, eat and then leave. I suppose in a way that is what Vegas is all about but I've always felt a little guilty about not understanding more of the history of Las Vegas. I think my visit to the Boneyard starts to scratch that itch a little.

The original Binion's Horseshoe sign with some goofy guy in front of it.
If you are ever in Vegas and looking for something different to do, I'd recommend taking the trip up to the Boneyard. It's about a half a mile north of Fremont Street and takes an hour to tour and hear stories about the signs and the history of Las Vegas in general. It should be no surprise that the history is full of colorful characters. The tour guide will fill you in on Benny Binion, Howard Hughes and everyone else who had a hand in the early days of Las Vegas. The collection features some fairly significant signs from historic casinos in Vegas including the Desert Inn, Binion's Horseshoe and the Moulin Rouge. The Moulin Rouge was the first racially integrated casino in Vegas. Apparently other casinos used to spy on patrons in the Moulin Rouge and would terminate their own employees if caught in the place. Sad how the history of segregation affects even a place like Las Vegas.

The tour includes some great stories about casinos. I think my favorites were about the Stardust and the MGM Grand, probably because I have spent time in both those places over the prior 11 years since I first visited Las Vegas. The MGM Grand apparently used to have a theme park in the rear of the casino and featured a Wizard of Oz theme to the casino, which totally makes sense considering the shade of green (emerald?) which emanates from the hotel at night. The Stardust, though, had a more bizarre story. The casino name and sign was apparently inspired by the nuclear bomb testings that were being conducted in Nevada during the 1950s. The original sign was shaped like a mushroom cloud which you can see if you look closely at the picture at the bottom of this post. That's not the bizarre part. As one of their promotional packages, the hotel used to take guests on bus trips to watch the atomic bomb testings. I guess in those days you just washed away the fallout in the shower when you got back to the hotel??? I imagine that's one idea someone was regretting with the benefit of hindsight.

The way the neon is crafted to represent the flower in the yucca plant is a lost art.
There are other signs in the collection besides casino signs. Dry cleaners, restaurants, motels, trailer parks and wedding chapels are all featured at the Boneyard. Each one is bold, distinctive and for the most part instantly memorable, which is something I have always loved about commercial graphic art and signage in particular. I love things with clear content which are both simple and complex in their design.

The Stardust T with a series of other signs.
The artform displayed at the Boneyard is uniquely American in origin, which is something else about signs and neon signs that appeals to me. I remember emigrating to the United States as a kid and being struck by the neon signs that announced seemingly every business and storefront. We just didn't have that same kind of blatant and obvious commercialism in England in the 1970s. I've always loved how over the top America has been with its approach to commercialism and advertising.

LOVE the duck!
The Neon Museum hopes to move into a permanent facility later this year. They relocated the concrete shell from the old La Concha motel lobby to serve as their museum entrance. I'd love to go back when they open it. In the meantime, the Boneyard and the signs displayed in the median of Las Vegas Boulevard just south of the museum serve as the exhibits. The signs on Las Vegas Boulevard are fully illuminated and must look incredible at night. I imagine their display collection will grow as funding comes in. They told us it takes about $100,000 to restore a typical sign and get it ready for display.

Barbary Coast, Desert Inn, some Sahara letters and the Stardust cloud.
If you go, go early. There were several tour groups in the Boneyard by the time we finished our tour but as the first group, we had the place to ourselves initially, which made for some great pictures (I think) without having to deal with people in the way.

The original Stardust letters. Had to get a picture of me with these.

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