America · Las Vegas

The Neon Museum

I have always had a great interest in the history of Las Vegas. In particular, the development of ‘The Strip’ and the stories of those who contributed to its highs and lows. If you are in Vegas and looking to learn about this history then pay a visit to The Neon Museum. According to their Statement of Purpose, The Neon Museum is dedicated to “collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment.” By the end of this post, you’ll hopefully see how they’ve managed to successfully achieve this goal.

There are multiple ways to experience the Museum. During the day, you can enter the neon boneyard and wander around at your own pace between 9 am and 5 pm. You do have to buy a ticket for whichever hour you’d like to enter. Then there is a guided tour option that runs for an hour. The benefit of this is that you have an interpreter. Finally, you can combine a guided tour with a light show called “Brilliant!” After some careful consideration, we decided that a guided tour would be most beneficial as you get to hear about the history as well as see the signs. I was so glad we opted for the tour because it added so much to the experience.

After a brief introduction, our guide explained how the boneyard is roughly divided into three sections: downtown Vegas signs, small business signs and, finally, signs from The Strip. Overall, the tour was a very positive experience. The stories really enhanced seeing the signs and we were able to learn a little about the Museum’s plans for restoration and conservation. I’ll start by providing an overview of the latter before sharing some highlight signs from the tour.

Conservation and Preservation

When some famous casinos and hotels were demolished, including Sands Hotel and Casino, everything attached to the building was lost. The Neon Museum was formed in 1996 and began preserving the neon signs of Vegas in order to offer a glimpse into the past. Luckily, many of these signs are often leased to businesses that can return them to the manufacturer at the end of the lease. Or, alternatively, they can keep the sign. The Neon Museum has managed to salvage a significant number of signs that have come into the collection in varying conditions.

According to our guide, the Museum has only received two fully operational signs since opening. There have been sign restorations including this amazing one from Hard Rock Cafe. Not every sign is scheduled to be restored. There is an intention to display the state of how some were discovered so that history isn’t lost.

It was also great to learn about how the neon signs are made. Depending on what goes inside the tubing you can either have a red (neon) or a blue (argon) sign. To make different colours, these need to be mixed or the tubing needs to be coated in order for the desired colour to appear.

I don’t want to talk about every single sign we saw. For each of the three sections, I have selected one or two to discuss that either had an interesting story or just looked really cool.

Signs from Downtown Las Vegas

One of the first signs in the boneyard is this one from The Golden Nugget. This hotel was opened in 1946. The 1905 refers to when Las Vegas became a town. Essentially, a significant train hub opened near downtown Vegas, leading to casinos and hotels opening to entertain and accommodate the workers.

Moving further along, we learnt about the Moulin Rouge, the first de-segregated casino in Vegas. There are many rumours as to why this casino closed only a few months after opening. One is that The Mob, who pretty much controlled The Strip, did not like how popular the casino had become in such a short time. The Moulin Rouge did try opening again a few times, but, never again opened a full casino and hotel. At one stage it did operate as a small hotel and coffee shop. In this shop, members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) met with casino owners and came to the agreement that casinos would voluntarily start de-segregating in the 1960s.

Signs from Small Businesses

There are two signs from this section I want to mention. The first is this happy shirt sign that belonged to Steiner Cleaners & Laundry. The sign was designed by the daughter of the owners who originally had drawn the shirt with a cigar hanging out of its mouth. Over time, the cigar has disappeared. This drycleaning company was where Liberace sent his costumes after performing in Vegas. Because rhinestones and jewels couldn’t go through the drycleaning process, staff would remove them, sometimes up to 4000 on one garment, then sew them back on piece by piece after cleaning.

The name of the restaurant this sign belonged to was the Green Shack. It was opened by Mattie Jones in 1929. In 1932 it changed its name from the Colorado to Green Shack. This was during the construction of the Hoover Dam. When workers came back into town they could literally visit the window of the owner’s house and get chicken and whisky. As this was Prohibition, the whisky was a bit on the down low. When Prohibition ended, the restaurant expanded to also serve steak and more freely advertise cocktails. It operated until 1999, an amazingly long time for a business in Vegas. Today, the building is listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places.

Signs from The Strip

The New Frontier was once owned by Howard Hughes. He had stayed at the Desert Inn countless times and on one of these occasions decided he wanted to extend his reservation. When his request was declined, he purchased the Inn. Eventually, Hughes would go on to own many other casinos and hotels on The Strip including Sands and The New Frontier.

The final sign I want to share is from the Stardust Resort and Casino. Stardust only closed in 2006. The Resort was outer space themed which you can really tell from the atomic style lettering. Its sign became very famous in Vegas.

Gift Shop

I haven’t done a gift shop shout out in quite some time! The shop at The Neon Museum is fantastic. They sell so many vintage items including room keys from hotels that have since been demolished and old casino playing card decks.

One particular item I just had to buy was a light bulb from the Welcome to Las Vegas Sign. The store assistant was so helpful and explained how the bulbs on the sign are replaced every day so they never burn out. The bulbs that are taken down are sold as souvenirs. I’ll be leaving Vegas with a small part of its most famous sign.

Further Information

I would like to thank our guide for such an in-depth tour of the boneyard.

The Neon Museum is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. I would highly recommend pre-purchasing tickets from their website beforeyou visit.

Photographs can be taken for personal use only. This is not a commercial blog, nor am I using the photographs taken for commercial benefit.

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