POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 28, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 11:23 a.m. HST, Oct 28, 2012
LAS VEGAS — On a night of proclamations crammed with the word "whereas," a retired neon sign designer named Brian Leming offered a moment of levity.
It was a VIP event Tuesday before the Saturday opening of the open-air Neon Museum after more than 15 years of effort. More than 150 neon signs made by Leming and others surrounded him, hunks of metal and glowing glass that fulfilled the growing demands of mid-20th-century commerce. They are increasingly considered expressions of history, art and architecture, worth preserving and exhibiting.
But Leming, 72, evoked their down-to-earth origins. He recalled a design meeting for the Stardust Hotel-Casino, then run by Lefty Rosenthal, a Las Vegas bookmaker and kingpin immortalized in Nicholas Pileggi's book and Martin Scorsese's film "Casino." Rosenthal was notoriously detail-oriented.
"We were sitting around a conference table and arguing about the right shade of purple," Leming recalled. "And I'm thinking, ‘Jesus, they're discussing the nuances of purple, and this is Frank Rosenthal!"'
Leming is a craftsman from a bygone era, when people drew with pencils, heated and bent glass tubes, filled the glass with neon and argon gas, cut and shaped metal and fiberglass, and then hoisted larger-than-life tableaus onto buildings and above roads filled with men and women who were falling in love with cars.
Over time the neon signs of Las Vegas have earned recognition beyond those of any other city, said Bill Marion, the chairman of the museum's board. This may explain why the museum's collection has drawn 20,000 visitors a year by appointment only, plus countless photo and film shoots, even before it officially opened.
Marion said the museum would "get people to rethink what Las Vegas is, and recognize that it has made a significant cultural impact worldwide." He estimated that attendance would reach 55,000 within a year.
Leming, who retired last year, worked on signs for many of the hotels and casinos on display, including the Stardust, the Barbary Coast and the Frontier. He said that the museum was "way overdue," and that he had been trying for 20 years to gain support for preserving the signs as many Las Vegas properties were renovated or demolished. "‘If you're going to knock it down, let's save it,' I would tell them," Leming said.
The foundation running the museum formed in 1997 and the Young Electric Sign Co. donated dozens of signs shortly afterward, but for years they sat in a dusty lot that could be seen only by appointment.
That changed in 2005, when a quirky building with a roof shaped like a seashell, from La Concha Motel, was donated to the museum. The 1960s motel lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first black member of the American Institute of Architects, would become the visitors' center and headquarters of the Neon Museum.
Cutting the building into eight pieces, moving them nearly four miles north along Las Vegas Boulevard and reassembling them cost $1.2 million. Adding administrative offices, bathrooms and an outdoor deck cost an additional $1.6 million. But the snowball effect set in motion by acquiring the building drew a series of city, state and federal grants, as well as private donations. The museum has a reserve of about $400,000 and is debt-free, Marion said.
A tour makes clear why the board has decided to show the collection via docents, and not with headsets or plaques. Justin Favela, the programs coordinator and a veteran of more than 1,000 tours since 2007, leavened the standard mix of names, dates and places with a sprinkling of personal anecdotes. Paused in front a giant "H," he said: "This came from the Horseshoe casino, owned by Benny Binion, who may or may not have killed someone. When I gave the tour to Binion's son, Jack, he said, ‘You don't have to sugarcoat it."'
To the left, he points to the graceful curl of a sign's script announcing the "Moulin Rouge," recalling that it was the first integrated casino, which opened in 1955 and went bankrupt in less than a year.
The museum has a staff of eight docents and 20 volunteers trained for tours. 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.
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, and this was the first time the siblings had been in Las Vegas. They grew up seeing the photo of the newlyweds on the wall.
Danielle Kelly, the museum's executive director, said the value of the signs goes beyond personal memories.
"This is commercial archaeology, art and architecture," she said.
Kelly, who also oversaw the museum's layout, with signs from the 1930s to the 1990s arranged along a mazelike path, said the "kind of design that has happened here could only have happened here." An example: 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.