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A monument to star-dusted Las Vegas


LAS VEGAS » We may be made of star stuff, as astronomer Carl Sagan once said, but our imaginations contain a strong dose of "Stardust" — at least as the word appears here. The capital S, its 17-foot-tall body peppered with bulbs, is shaped like a coy lightning bolt. Its jagged strokes change thickness and meet at unexpected angles, like the stylized clothes of "The Jetsons." The T’s are like toon sketches of rays shooting from stars.

And the whole word here — although not lighted up with pulsing energy like it once was — seems to conjure fantasy. It doesn’t just advertise the name of a now-defunct Las Vegas casino. Its associated whiffs of sci-fi adventure and high-tech possibility — of stardust and neon — are imprinted on the imagination of several generations.

The letters appear here in the outdoor "boneyard" of the Neon Museum, just past a time-rubbed Aladdin’s lamp and a shattered signature of tubed glass that once heralded the Liberace Museum. A boneyard is an outdoor graveyard for discarded hardware and spare parts; in this case, it contains the relics of an age of neon in a town that transmuted inert gases into things nearly alive.

The museum began in 1996 as a modest attempt to rescue remnants of that era, later leasing city land for its own boneyard of salvaged signs. The Young Electric Sign Co., once Las Vegas’ most innovative sign manufacturer, also donated its jangle of corpses. The collection grew.

Over the years, the boneyard began to live up to its name with peeling paint, empty sockets and rusted metal, and the museum began to live up to its name with tours on request through its 1 1/2 acres containing about 450 elements from often kitschy signs. Public and private money was raised for what became a $4 million project (including a small park across the street). By raising another $2.5 million, 15 major signs were restored to their full glory and mounted downtown and on Las Vegas Boulevard (including the light-spangled Silver Slipper outside the museum).

Finally, the lobby of the 1961 La Concha Motel, which the museum helped save from the ax, was moved here. Its poured concrete clamshell design, revealing glass walls beneath its whorls, was restored to the vision of its creator, Paul Revere Williams. That building opened last fall as a kind of museum lobby, providing a small store, display screens surveying Las Vegas history, and a place where visitors could meet guides for a 45-minute tour, which is still the only way the artifacts can be viewed. With set hours, a visitor center and a staff, the boneyard is being resurrected in museum form. Annual attendance is expected to double from the roughly 20,000 of the past.

This does not mean that the museum has reached maturity. But before chiding it for reticence amid its display of ruin, homage is due. The museum’s executive director, Danielle Kelly, took me through the boneyard, bringing many of the signs to life and defending the decision to leave artifacts unlabeled and to preserve them in disrepair. And the wreckage is uncanny, sometimes lovely, often haunting.

Stick with Stardust for a moment. As those letters stand here, we can’t really get their full impact. They come from the original sign that made its debut with the casino in 1958. It was just after Sputnik was launched and tourists were gathering here to watch atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site. Its font became famously known as "Electra Jag" or, more familiarly, "Atomic."

The sign was the Strip’s largest, 216 feet long rising 27 feet above the casino’s first floor, with 11,000 bulbs and 7,000 feet of neon tubing, sparkling with extraterrestrial splendor: It displayed the entire solar system, the Earth at its pre-Copernican center. It has been suggested that the original pinkish lettering matched the color of Vegas’ radioactive dust. The sign made an explosive impact and could be seen for three miles across the desert, a blast in its own right.

Are we missing something by seeing it in such unilluminated disrepair, its paint peeling, many sockets empty, its spectacular context missing? Moving this sign cost about $180,000. What is it that we are perceiving here? What happens when we look at it? Or at the swoops of tubing that was Debbie Reynolds’ giant signature for her casino? Or at a portion of the three-story-high sheath of animated neon that once wrapped the Golden Nugget?

You can get some idea by looking at old photographs at the visitor center or touring the Mob Museum nearby. In the early 1960s — the Renaissance of Neon — Tom Wolfe described Las Vegas as "the only town in the world whose skyline is made up neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs."

In their startlingly original book, "Learning From Las Vegas" (1972), architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour pointed out that signs may be the most "changeable" aspect of Las Vegas but are also "the most unique, most monumental parts of the Strip." The Golden Nugget casino, they write, evolved over 30 years "from a building with a sign on it to a totally sign-covered building." They refer to this as creating a "decorated shed." No one in Las Vegas, Wolfe suggested, buys a sign to fit a building; the building is modified to support the largest possible sign.

These signs, then, are more substance than ornament. Behind the original Stardust sign and its casino were motel-like buildings, undecorated sheds. They were lifted from the mundane partly by being given planetary names but mainly by the neon’s afterglow. The sign transformed what was within not by pointing to it like a traditional sign but by pointing somewhere else — here, to the fantastical, explosive possibilities of the atomic Space Age. Signs had to be spectacular because they were enactments of fantasy fulfilled. You want stardust? Here it is.

That might give an idea of what was once at stake here. One of the most striking signs is from the 1955 Moulin Rouge, its cursive letters curving into elegant patterns in which art historian Kirsten Swenson fancifully sees a mock-Arabic script — as if invoking the early 20th century’s French African colonies. And indeed the Moulin Rouge was advertised as "the nation’s first major interracial hotel" at a time when most casinos made racial "exceptions" only for entertainment. But it closed just months after opening.

In their broken, darkened state, these signs have another form of illumination: Their distractions and disguises are unveiled, their motivations made clear. Wolfe compared Las Vegas to Versailles, partly because both were calculated projections. The Sun King, he pointed out, built a monument to his power not in Paris but in the countryside. In Las Vegas, casino creators were the king’s opposites, thorough nonaristocrats: gangsters. But they were the first Americans with enough money and power to build monuments to themselves outside established cultural centers.

Some signs, then, are both monuments and alibis. The Stardust, after all, had a history of corruption and violence; the mob runs through it (a story told in Nicholas Pileggi’s "Casino").

But the signs are so clearly a charade, you aren’t really taken in. You see the lure of fleshly vanity, stardust and sensuality, yet as in those 17th-century vanitas paintings, you also see the skeletal reality. Using Google Earth, you can zoom in on the museum’s boneyard: At its center, plundered from the Treasure Island casino, is a giant pirate skull with a golden tooth.

The themes are rich. What is needed is more information. The museum’s companion book, "Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon," is deft and informative, but it would help to have signs labeled and the narrative more clearly defined. And a deeper exploration of neon’s past on the new video screens would help make sense of the surprisingly different present.

There are, of course, still signs in Las Vegas. But as the authors of "Spectacular" point out, the contemporary casino has become a sign unto itself. Beginning in the 1990s, themed casinos, like the Luxor and Excalibur, turned their entire structures into signs: an Egyptian pyramid, a medieval castle.

That effect endures even when the approach is more abstract. The Wynn, for example, calls attention to itself by having no apparent theme; it is a sleek, showy, mirrored curve of gold — a surface with no grit, only gleam. Inside the Wynn, the fantasy shifts with images of ripe flowers bursting into extravagant bloom in bouquets, floor patterns, paintings, even stage sets for the casino’s show. Sensual fullness and fecundity within, gilded excess and elegance without. Who needs neon when everything is a sign?

But if you find yourself succumbing to stardust’s allure too completely, you can now go to the Neon Museum and see what happens to all that flash when colors fade and decay sets in. The museum is Las Vegas’ vanitas. Except that its bones are still lovely and the skulls still work their charms.

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