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Let there be light
Story by Lissa Townsend Rodgers
Does neon still have a home in the changing Las Vegas lightscape? Not much anymore — but it should
When people close their eyes and think of Las Vegas, their mind may light on a chilled cocktail, a statuesque showgirl, a pair of tumbling dice — but the background is always neon. Luminous streaks and flourishes of red and blue, canary and emerald, cerulean and magenta flashing and fading against a velvet-dark background.
“That neon nighttime skyline is so evocative — of mystery, seduction, nightlife, risk, speed and possibility,” says Danielle Kelly, executive director of the Neon Museum. “That intoxicating mixture of allure and the promise of transformation — it embodies the shimmering desert mirage.”
Yet, more and more, the neon-lit Sin City is more a fantasy image than a daily reality. Every week, we lose more of our luminous landmarks — from the plain, ’40s vintage Hilltop House Supper Club sign to the vast, ultra-mod, retro-futuristic rainbow-tinted panorama of the Stardust. One day they glow bright, then are dimmed and finally disappear entirely. Today’s casinos are far more likely to lure customers with a giant screen flashing the names of chefs and DJs than a 20-foot, silver-spangled stiletto heel or a three-story tower of perpetually popping pink champagne bubbles. Does neon still have a place in the changing Las Vegas landscape?
For something so seemingly modern, neon’s history stretches back into the late 17th century, when the first experiments occurred. But it was developed into its iconic form in the late 1800s — Nikolai Tesla used to jazz up his lectures by displaying glowing tubes bent to form the word “light,” while Thomas Edison preferred rows of electric bulbs spelling out his name to wow the crowds. In the early 20th century, France’s Claude Neon company began developing colored neon for signs and architectural adornment. Neon officially came to the U.S. in the 1920s when the company designed a pair of signs for Packard in Los Angeles. The craze for neon swept the country, and the graceful Parisian craft became the perfect vehicle for American brashness.
So, while Paris may call itself the City of Light, one could say that the title truly belongs to Vegas, whose love affair with bulbs and tubes elevated a sleepy town to a glamour capital. Neon fit Vegas like a custom-made tux, for several reasons. Those luminous lights have long been the sign of sin — when It’s a Wonderful Life transforms sweet, nice Bedford Falls into vice-ridden Pottersville, the first thing they show us is the neon. But in Las Vegas neon isn’t just for bars, strip clubs and tattoo parlors — it’s also for health food stores, hospitals and 7-Elevens. Even if it’s just a modest purple squiggle by the doorway, businesses try to work it in the same way a Texas store might sketch a cowboy or a New York City restaurant would stencil a skyline: as a sign of civic pride.
“The golden age of neon was the golden age of logo design, of comic books and comic strips and a lot of that was reflected in local neon,” says Len Davidson, author of Vintage Neon and founder of the Neon Museum of Philadelphia at the Center for Architecture in Philadelphia. “It was funny, campy, witty.”
Painters of light
If Las Vegas’ decadence primed it for neon, so did its physical location. The desert landscape lacks significant features. Neon transforms a disconcerting, disorienting blankness into a backdrop, an empty canvas waiting to be painted with light. In his book, Inside Las Vegas, Mario Puzo insisted, “the one thing you won’t get (here) is art.” But somehow Puzo couldn’t see what was right in front of him (his Vegas is basically gaming tables with the occasional glance at a passing showgirl, anyway). Neon is the art of Las Vegas, much as jazz is the art of New Orleans. When you watch the blazing turquoise-and-salmon of the Fremont Street casinos strobing over your head, when you behold the shimmer and sparkle of the Strip casinos or see the rows of motel signs pulsating in candy colors, juggling fonts and geometry, it’s hard not to feel the flutter in your gut and a small, thrilled “Oooh!” on your tongue.
“The wonderful craft and art that was done with neon — it’s folk art and, like most folk art, it’s not appreciated during its time,” says Davidson. “It’s only in the past 10 years or so people have wanted to preserve them. America tends to take things to for granted because they’re so common.”
Even if you don’t consider neon an art, you can’t deny that it has served as muse to many. Think of the lyrical abstraction of gleaming, glowing, saturated color tubes that opens Casino or the flashing, dazzling sensory overkill backdropping a row of impassive, orange-clad cocktail waitresses in Koyaanisqatsi. Or the sleekly sparkling marquees that shine off the hood of James Bond’s Mustang Fastback in Diamonds Are Forever. Listen for the bright lights, crystal city and devil’s porch light in songs by Doc Pomus, Gram Parsons and Tom Waits. Hunter S. Thompson, James Ellroy, Joan Didion writing about “the signs ways out in the desert, looming up” or Tom Wolfe exulting over “Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming-Alert Spiral, McDonald’s Hamburger Parabola, Mint Casino Elliptical, Miami Beach Kidney” in his efforts to describe something “far out beyond the frontiers of conventional studio art.”
While Vegas may be quick and vivid inspiration for a visitor’s creativity, local artists are especially saturated with neon’s influence. Neon is adaptable to a variety of aesthetics, from the dread of ’40s noir to the brightness of ’80s pop. “(It’s) an art form that defined the city for decades,” says Las Vegas Weekly arts writer Kristen Peterson. “It’s been interesting to watch how differently artists approach neon as both idea and as subject matter, while avoiding cliché.” Among her favorite examples: “Erin Stellmon’s mixed-media compositions … Jerry Misko paints abstract or representational renditions of neon tubes on canvas (and) Richard Hooker, who has recently created work out of actual neon to create text slang.” She adds that many artists have “tapped into the historical and physical power of neon through reference or as a live medium.” Depicting neon is another way to keep its influence alive; making art out of it also helps preserve the craft.
Both the art and craft are featured at the Neon Museum, which offers signs as both visual art and historical relics. The museum has only been open since late 2012, but has attracted visitors from around the world; museum tours frequently sell out.
“We have such a wonderful, diverse and loyal group of visitors to the Neon Museum,” says Kelly. Along with their preservation of signs that would otherwise rust into scrap, the Neon Museum attempts to return some to their former blazing glory. “The restoration of something like the Silver Slipper is very time-consuming because fabricators are essentially re-learning crafting techniques that are obsolete in the industry,” she says. Tube-bending, hand-building fiberglass — these are not lost arts, but they are definitely becoming misplaced. Most of the restored signs can be found around the city, shining as they did when first flipped on. “We try very hard to return signs as close as possible to their original location,” she says.
Chewy neon center
Many signs came from downtown Las Vegas, a neighborhood that has historically been a center of neon — and whose renaissance is proving both a boon and a challenge to its survival. A number of properties are in the process of being redeveloped, leaving the future of their historic neon in question.
“I hope that downtown developers appreciate the rich and unique culture of this community, particularly as embodied in its neon,” says Kelly. “In my mind, a value for this city and its history necessitates a reverence for its neon.” Last year, The Downtown Project renovated the Ambassador Motel sign to celebrate the Life is Beautiful Festival (restored and augmented with a luminous llama in honor of Zappos/The Downtown Project honcho Tony Hsieh’s penchant for the furry quadrupeds). New venues such as La Comida and Commonwealth have employed neon in their signage — or the newer, cheaper, more durable next-generation version of neon, anyway, wherein heated gas in glass tubes is replaced by LEDs in flexible plastic. It’s rather like going from analog to digital (quite literally, given that they both involve glass tubes replaced by computer chips).
One of the areas watched most anxiously by neon aficionados is the strip of motels along Fremont Street. Elsewhere, the demolition of decrepit bungalow courts may be unremarkable and even welcome, but here they fear for the fates of the Par-a-Dice and the Roulette, the Sky Ranch and the Desert Moon. For such a small space, a wide variety of signage is in jeopardy, from old-style ’40s boxes with glowing letters to over-the-top, Space Age Moderne flights of fancy.
“The artistic influence has spread and Las Vegas motels have signs like no others,” Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour wrote in the seminal architecture book Learning from Las Vegas. “Not glamorous signs, but classic ones nonetheless,” says Steve Franklin, aka Downtown Steve, a neighborhood Realtor and longtime resident. “Vegas has the longest string of old roadside neon hotel signs in the country, and nobody seems to give two golden nugget shits about it.”
Choose your identity
Preserving downtown’s neon is all the more crucial as the tubes fade out on the Strip, which is now dominated by swimming pool-sized digital billboards hyping a property’s shows, spas, restaurants and nightclubs. Signage was once a flamboyant evocation of a casino’s image: Given that every property offered cards and dice, coffee shops and steakhouses, showrooms and suites, the only difference lay in how they were presented. Guests chose the identity they most fancied and, as written in Learning from Las Vegas, “for three days one may imagine oneself a centurion at Caesars Palace, a ranger at the Frontier or a jetsetter at the Riviera rather than a salesperson from Des Moines, Iowa.”
Back when people tended to hit town and then decide where to stay, a big, flashy display by the side of the road might make the difference in whether a traveler choose to spend the night as a pasha at the Dunes or a tiki lord at the Tropicana. Today, everyone goes online and evaluates twenty properties from price to pillows before making a decision.
“Current signs emulate the image montage experience of a television, computer or communication device, with the capability to pack lots of image-based information into one space,” says the Neon Museum’s Kelly. In rapid succession, they push everything from the current Cirque show and the luxury items available at Chanel to the “bottomless” Bud Light at the bar and the crab legs at the buffet.
The new marketing-oriented format is apropos to the modern casinos, which are blank, glossy surfaces outside, standard mod-mid-century décor inside. Properties no longer build their identity from a theme that is applied to signs, titles, interiors, cocktail waitress uniforms. Today a property’s brand is made up of all the little brands it hosts: What is The Cosmopolitan’s theme but the sum total of lunching at Blue Ribbon Sushi, dining at Jaleo, shopping at All Saints, listening to Bruno Mars and drinking cocktails made with rosemary-infused simple syrup and coconut-ginger foam? In a way, the modern casino sign is just a list of likes and favorites, much like an online profile; the visceral expression of art has given way to the informational barrage of advertising.
“Neon has given the city its visual identity,” wrote groundbreaking neon artist Rudi Stern in his book, Let There Be Neon. “For those who love the medium, Las Vegas is enchantment. It lights the grand stage on which the American Dream has been playing to a full house since World War II.”
Will neon be left behind as the big show enters the new millennium? Its glowing moment may have passed, but most people feel there will always be a place for the art and image that is so inextricably linked to Sin City.
“We may not be seeing ‘spectaculars’ on the scale Las Vegas used to see, but we do see neon,” says Kelly. “Perhaps it is on a more modest scale, more stylized or applied as a design strategy or device to evoke a style or time period.”
Local artist Stellmon believes that neon can be a part of the city’s future while linking us to the past. “I love the way neon can be nostalgic and comforting like an old diner sign on Route 66, or futuristic and cold like Blade Runner,” she says. “Vegas is both of those things, and the presence of neon, both working and not, represents that.”
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