There I was, face-to-face with an anthropomorphic blouse. It was smiling.
“Back in the day, it used to smoke a cigarette,” said Ashley Canelon, my guide for The Neon Museum. “You know, it was the ‘60s.”
This preternaturally ecstatic long-sleeved shirt, like the other signs at The Neon Museum’s boneyard of discarded Las Vegas emblems, tells a lesser-known story about Vegas. The shirt once belonged to the shuttered, but historic, Steiner Cleaners, where performers and Vegas elite had their clothing washed. Canelon told us that pianist Liberace, with his signature rhinestone-studded clothing, was a regular.
The Neon Museum’s cemetery of signs houses hundreds of other stories tucked into its beautifully curated outdoor display of Las Vegas’ now obsolete neon tradition. Learning about these stories is easy since visitors to the museum must partake in a guided tour. On that note: Make sure to book reservations in advance, as tours can sell out.
While on the tour, you'll learn about Vegas’ origin, motels, casinos, mob history and fast wedding — and divorce — industry. You can even get a look at how different fashion and aesthetic trends made their way through the city, such as the famous, larger-than-life Stardust sign, leftover from Vegas’ booming atomic age, or a neon sign depicting a towering man shooting pool with a floppy hairdo.
“He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt,” Canelon said. “Let’s not bring that fashion back.”
While Betty Willis’ famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign is still in use (and therefore not at the boneyard), you can find another sign she handwrote for the Moulin Rouge (which also spells “in love” if you look closely). The story behind it is almost as beautiful as the sign itself: In 1955, the Moulin Rouge was the first integrated hotel in the city. Although it quickly shuttered for “reasons unknown,” it was far ahead of its time and finally gave African American performers and staff the respect they deserved.
So, while Las Vegas might be most famous for its sins, the Neon Museum offers proof that the city has plenty of good signs, too.