Hollis Gillespie's The Ugly American

Vegas Neon: Burning Out and Fading away

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I consider it a public service that I stole a neon sign set to be scrapped from the back lot of the Young Electric Sign Company in Las Vegas. My mother the klepto never stole a neon sign from Las Vegas, though if she thought it possible I’m sure she would’ve. Instead she stole every ashtray from every casino where she ever sat her ass to play the nickel slots. Thank God, because they’re worth something now. I saw some of these same ashtrays at the Vegas Museum, a deserted place pushed to the back of one of those massive, newly built stucco-blobs at the end of Fremont Street. There, in glass cases, they have tons of ashtrays, from The Sands, The Dunes, The Stardust, The Thunderbird—all those awesome atomic-age hotels along the strip that have been, or are about to be, rubble-ized to make room for the invasion of the giant, bloviating eyesores that’ll replace them.

In fact, with all these huge hotels emerging you’d think Vegas is getting bigger, but it’s not—it’s getting smaller. Vegas, in fact, is disappearing. Thank God for the Neon Boneyard, which consists, literally, of two scrap yards and two part-time administrators frantically attempting to salvage these historical neon masterpieces. The Boneyard has hardly any funding, no advertising to promote its existence, or even signage, per se, except the lovely relics rusting into each other on the other side of the locked fence. After I talked my way inside, which wasn’t easy, I was agog. Here it is, I thought, Vegas.

You might be happy to hear that the old Golden Nugget sign is dilapidating nicely, and that the monumental sign from the Landmark Hotel sits, pretty and huge, all intact, like a well-preserved cadaver. But “Mr. Lucky,” the giant fiberglass Leprechaun who used to smile at you from atop Fitzgerald’s downtown, didn’t fare so well. He died a horrible death when a hobo crawled inside him one cold night and lit a campfire. Mr. Lucky’s steel-reinforced skeleton remains in place, though, like the bones of a giant sea monster that crawled ashore to die. Nowhere to be found is the marquee from The Sands—the quintessential ’60s Vegas-chic hotel where the Rat Pack used to perform—which was demolished in the mid ’90s. That famous neon marquee, the subject of so many photographs inside the pitiable Las Vegas Museum, disappeared.

A SLIPPER THAT STILL FITS
I first came here when I was seven, back when Vegas was Vegas, and the journey from the west consisted of almost nothing but an expanse of barren desert that hardly had streetlights, let alone life in general. And the first neon sign of note that greeted you from this direction was the famous Silver Slipper, a sparkling, three-story Cinderella number that rotated on top of a pole 10 floors higher still, with diamond lights rippling in peyote-trip patterns. While my mother won our rent’s worth of coin cups inside, my seven-year-old self stood directly under that spinning slipper and stared at it so long my corneas nearly cremated. It was literally the most incandescently beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

That was back before they paved over Fremont Street, transforming it into one big, interconnected, motorized-stool-accessible pavilion populated by booze-addled mummies. But hope is not lost. At the Neon Boneyard, the first thing—the very first thing—you see is the Silver Slipper. She’s old now, and dented, her bulbs broken, but she’s standing up, not lying on her side like most of the others. She’s still standing, still beautiful, still ready to welcome you, still able to muster some wonder from a misanthropic sea urchin like me. “You can touch her,” I was told. But I couldn’t. Some things belong out of reach.

I had to hurry to catch a flight, and accidentally left my salvaged sign in the trunk of my rental car. Ten minutes later I called Alamo to tell them I’d be back to pick it up, but it was already gone. “How can a 25-pound neon sign just disappear?” I bitched to them, though I shouldn’t have been alarmed. Neon signs disappear in Vegas all the time.

The Neon Museum is online at neonmuseum.org. Image courtesy of Laura Domela, whose photography book, Neon Boneyard, is now out on Lulu Press and can be ordered at domela.com.

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