"A Bit Bright": The Rise and Fall of The Neon Signs in Las Vegas

Andrew S. Delfino

Writer’s comment: When we had to choose term paper topics in AMS 160, a seminar on the history and architecture of Las Vegas, I knew immediately that I wanted to study neon signs. Only after we began analyzing how architecture defines space and what that says about a place, did I realize how signs are a major part both of Las Vegas’s identity and its architecture. After our class field trip over Memorial Day where we actually saw the hypnotic, glittering signs downtown and on the Strip I saw a new trend in signage emerging: a sign must now either be entertaining or the hotel itself must be a spectacular display of architecture. Thanks to Dr. Eric Schroeder’s invaluable help, I actually enjoyed writing this paper. After all, how could writing about a 90-ft neon cowboy named Vegas Vic not be fun?
—Andrew S. Delfino

Instructor’s comment: When I told colleagues and friends that I was taking fifteen undergraduates to Las Vegas for Memorial Day weekend they were skeptical—they agreed that it might be educational, but this meant something different for them than it did for me. But in a course where our primary focus is the architecture of Las Vegas, the field trip isn’t just logical, it’s necessary. And I know the class is successful when I read papers like the following one by Andy Delfino. In it Andy builds upon research by prominent architectural critics and, using his own field observations, makes a prediction about the future of neon signs in Las Vegas. It’s a paper that’s well researched, forcefully argued, and simply fun to read. And it shows that there is indeed much to be learned from Las Vegas.
—Eric James Schroeder, American Studies Program

Paris, France, might be known as the City of Lights, but it does not hold a candle to Las Vegas and its neon. Rumored to be the most brightly lit city one can see from space, Las Vegas has countless neon lights and signs that succeed in turning “night into daytime” just as Elvis sang in Viva Las Vegas. A good portion of the light in Vegas originates in the creative neon signs of Glitter Gulch downtown and the few neon signs that remain on the Strip. Historically, competition between hotels and casinos downtown and on the Strip created the driving force that changed signs from mere advertisements into tourist spectacles by themselves. Through competition between the hotels and casinos to attract customers, signs became larger and larger until eventually the sign became part of the architecture of some places.
         Now both Glitter Gulch and the Strip rely on being “entertainment environments” to attract customers. To compete with the Strip, Glitter Gulch ushered in the future of signage with the 90 ft. tall canopy that displays a computer-choreographed image-and-sound show—the Fremont Street Experience—where the old bows to the new as Glitter Gulch shuts down for the show’s duration. Meanwhile, on the Strip the sidewalk spectacles of the megaresorts (including the architecture of many of them) are the new attractions, not the signs. All this means that the future of signage both in downtown Las Vegas and on the Strip lies in “entertainment environments” that make neon signs unneeded.

Downtown, or, the Rise and Fall of Glitter Gulch
         In 1931, two events occurred that paved the way for Las Vegas to become not only the Mecca of gambling that it is today, but also the city of neon signs. First, construction began on the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and, second, gambling became legal in the state of Nevada once again. While both helped give birth to the modern Las Vegas, the creation of the Hoover Dam and its electricity allowed Las Vegas to become the City of Neon Lights. Without a nearby source of abundant, cheap electricity, Las Vegas could certainly have became a gambling metropolis, but it might not have been so well lit a metropolis. The electricity provided by the new dam helped transform Las Vegas from a sleepy frontier town into the tourist attraction it is today (Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens 12).
         In Viva Las Vegas!: After Hours Architecture, architectural critic Alan Hess points out that after the Hoover Dam was built, Las Vegas’ neon-lit main thoroughfare, Fremont Street, was like any other Main Street in America. Like the rest of the country in the 1930s, Las Vegas was quickly catching neon fever, and the glowing signs began illuminating storefronts and businesses up and down Fremont Street; soon casinos, diners, and department stores had neon tubing tracing their store name on metal signs. These signs, like all signs, help define the space of the building; they tell people “This is a diner,” or, “This is a casino.” Hess claims that the only difference between America and Las Vegas at the time was that because of the abundant electricity from the dam, Vegas had more neon signs, though none were any larger than those found in the rest of America (22).
         Following the birth of the Strip in the 1940s, in the early ‘50s the casinos and businesses on Fremont Street sought to make themselves more attractive in order to keep tourists downtown. The best way to lure the drivers and the pedestrians into the casinos was (and still is) by setting yourself apart from the competition, which at this time meant creating larger and more attractive signs than others downtown. However, no matter how large the signs got at this time, they were still essentially the equivalent of a neon advertisement hanging in front of a diner or other business (Barnard 73). The most famous example of this trend on Fremont Street is the endearing Las Vegas landmark from 1951, “Vegas Vic,” the 90-foot-tall cowboy in front of the Pioneer Club.
         With a moveable arm beckoning to passing motorists and a speaker welcoming pedestrians with a friendly “Howdy Podner!,” Vegas Vic is the avatar of Glitter Gulch sign philosophy. In all his neon glory, Vic, like many of the signs on Fremont Street at the time, is merely attached to the façade of the building he points out to everyone instead of being integrated into the architecture of the building. The brainchild of the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, Vegas Vic was designed for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce in order to lure more tourists to the city (Barnard 70). By adopting him for their sign, the owners of the Frontier Club were not only going for a large, unique sign to lure customers, but they aligned themselves with the Chamber of Commerce in order to lure in tourists to see a real Las Vegas celebrity, even if he is made of sheet metal and neon tubing. In the mid-1950s, there was even a large billboard pointing out Vic to drivers and pedestrians, as if the sign itself was enough of a spectacle to warrant another sign, furthering the advertising success of the Frontier Club. This was the first instance of the sign as an attraction by itself, something to be repeated many more times in Las Vegas.
         The year before “Vegas Vic” took up residence on Fremont Street, the Golden Nugget added its new sign, signaling the new paths that Fremont Street signs would take in the years to come. When the Golden Nugget first opened in the late 1940s, like the rest of the businesses on Fremont Street, it had a relatively small neon sign over the entryway to the casino. (It was not until the 1956 that it opened a hotel, for up until then every casino on Fremont Street was just that: a casino.) In 1950, however, after feeling pressure from other Fremont Street businesses in the constant signage war being waged, the Golden Nugget contacted the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) to add a new sign. The new roof-mounted, open-structure sign was large for that time, measuring 48 x 48 feet. It supported an array of 7 to 8 ft. tall sparkling letters and was bordered by curling neon-lamps leading up to a 12 ft. wide neon nugget whose rays spread 26 feet across (Barnard 70). By mounting their colossal sign on the roof, the owners of the Golden Nugget broke away from the “store-front” sign dominating Fremont Street. Six years later they again made history when they decided to make the entire façade of the casino into a neon sign.
         In keeping with Las Vegas tradition of remodeling every few years, in 1956 the owners of the Golden Nugget decided to renovate the casino and cover the entire façade with a neon sign. Designed by YESCO’s great sign artist Kermit Wayne, the new Golden Nugget sign/façade featured a “bullnose” shield (a 30 x 34 ft. neon façade projected out above the casino entrance and wrapping around the corner of the building) underneath the original 1950 sign. Flanking each side of the “bullnose” was a two-story-tall bank of flashing and sparkling neon lights and illuminated letters extending over 100 feet down the street. For the first time, a sign had become integrated into the building itself. Hess claims that this development was to be expected: “As the sign race accelerated, [casinos] moved from pictorial Indian chief heads, overland trains, and ornamental details into larger and larger patters covering the entire faces of buildings” (51). I would also argue that because of Glitter Gulch’s pedestrian scale, incorporating the sign into the building made the building more attractive to pedestrians.
         After the integration of sign and architecture at the Golden Nugget, nothing of real signage significance happened to Fremont Street until 1996 with the creation of the Fremont Street Experience (FSE). During the 1970s and the 1980s, business slowed on Fremont Street because of the rising success of the Strip and the inner-city problems affecting downtown like homelessness and crime. With the rise of megaresorts on the Strip in the early 1990s, downtown began suffering even more considerably than before from shrinking gaming revenues. For years, Fremont Street’s advantage over the larger, spread-out Strip was its pedestrian scale: the casinos and hotels were close enough to each other that tourists and gamblers could walk from one to another in search of the loosest slots, largest buffet, and strongest complimentary drinks. With such ease of movement, many tourists could tolerate the lack of Strip-like spectacles such as swashbuckling pirate battles and volcanoes belching fire into the desert sky. But with the rise of megaresorts and an increased pedestrian scale on the Strip—with such entertainment as dancing water shows, and yes, pirate battles and erupting volcanoes—Fremont Street began losing business. FSE showed the casinos putting aside their differences and coming together to polish the tarnished image of Glitter Gulch and attract more business.
         In keeping with the historically friendly relationship between the Las Vegas city council and Fremont Street, the city council helped the casinos fund the $70 million dollar Fremont Street Experience, designed by architect Jon Jerde. This four-block-long pedestrian mall is covered by a 90 ft. high canopy featuring more than 211 million light bulbs and a 540,000-watt sound system for the computer-generated light-and-sound show that takes place on the hour each night (Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens 55). Such an attraction aligns Fremont Street with the Strip in making pedestrian areas what Ada Louise Huxtable calls “entertainment environments” (75). No longer able to attract business with the nearness of its casinos or its reputation as world capital of neon signs, Glitter Gulch had to give in to a new evolution of signs-as-spectacle: the demolition of the famous Mint Casino in 1986 already signaled the beginning of Glitter Gulch’s fall, but with FSE, the last real sign spectacle of Vegas Vic was figuratively (and in a way literally) replaced by an four-block-long canopy of a sign that creates an “entertainment environment” of music and computer images.
         The actual show itself reveals a lot about the sign dynamics of Fremont Street. When the show begins, all the casinos turn off their bright, pulsating signs in order for the computer images on the canopy to stand out all the more. In such a gesture the downtown casinos are not only showing a united front in making the FSE work in order to compete with the Strip, but they metaphorically show the old signs turning off in the light of a larger new sign that is not only spectacle, but entertainment too. Huge crowds thronged around the FSE the night I visited over Memorial Day weekend: from an extremely inebriated wedding party to parents holding their children, thousands of people milled around the mall. Nothing sums up the reason people were there more than the Japanese tourist who asked me when the next show was: like everyone else, he was there only to watch the show.
         The Pioneer Club’s incorporation into FSE is the best example of the old giving way to the new. The largest logistical problem with creating the 90 ft. tall canopy was its conflict with Vegas Vic outside the Pioneer Club—his cowboy hat was a bit too tall to fit inside. In a telling gesture, the Pioneer Club allowed YESCO to alter Vic’s hat, shortening it by a couple feet in order to make it fit. Though the sign now fits into the FSE canopy, Vegas Vic’s hat looks completely out of scale, as if he stole Howdy Doody’s hat and put it on as a joke. Another interesting detail is that the neon sign spelling out “Pioneer Club” adjacent to the cowboy was left outside of the FSE canopy; not only is it now unlit at night, but it is missing letters and neon tubing, showing that if part of a sign is a few feet outside the canopy, that sign is effectively dead.

The Strip, or, Let Pylons Be Pylons
         Despite all their differences, the history of signage on the Strip is similar to that of signage on Fremont Street. In the early 1940s, casinos began to spring up outside of the city limits on the Strip, part of Highway 91, which led to Los Angeles. While competing with downtown for business, the casinos on the Strip borrowed ideas and practices from Glitter Gulch signage early on in their history. Naturally, as the Strip filled in, signage demands changed in order for casinos to stay competitive and soon giant signs climbed into the desert sky. When the megaresorts appeared in the early 1990s, a true pedestrian culture arose with sidewalk spectacles and sign styles changed again. Today, signs on the Strip have become smaller—they are aimed at pedestrians now that most casinos let their buildings do the advertising for them.
         The early hotel and casino signs were little more than highway signs, which allowed passing motorists the ability to quickly comprehend the basic information about the hotel. Architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour summarized the scale of the Strip’s first few decades when they described the Strip as seen from a moving car: “The scales of movement and space of the highway relate to the distances between buildings; because they are far apart, they can be comprehended at high speeds.…Big space between buildings is characteristic of the Strip….Its enormous spaces must be seen as moving sequences” (34-35). These signs naturally adhered to this scale as they were primarily used to deliver information to passing motorists on the highway. Compared to how large the signs would become as more and more hotels opened on the Strip, these early signs were relatively small because the hotels were so isolated that significant identification was unnecessary (Barnard 81). Despite their different size and purpose, these early Strip hotels and casinos shared affinities with those in Glitter Gulch. Although the Strip’s large open spaces and lack of competition made the need for Glitter-Gulch-type signs unnecessary, the early Strip nevertheless borrowed from Fremont Street.
         The Desert Inn shows Fremont Street’s influence on the early Strip. Built in 1951, it had the requisite highway marquee like all the other Strip hotels, though this one was slightly larger than others, showing the trend towards using colossal signs to lure motorists because of competition from more and more hotels opening on the Strip. However, on top of the hotel was a cloud-shaped sign spelling out “Desert Inn” over a neon cactus. Such a sign seems like something from Glitter Gulch at the time, right before large banks of flashing lights appeared as the Golden Nugget’s façade. Alan Hess points out that at this time “sign and architecture were in balance. There was no need to grab attention with large signs as there would be later when competition grew and the Strip filled in with more hotels” (49). This balance would only continue for a few more years before the Flamingo and other resorts would signal the beginning of the new trend of Strip sign as spectacle.
         In 1953, the Flamingo installed the first neon spectacle on the Strip, which, aside from the abundance of neon, totally broke from the Glitter-Gulch-influenced signs at the time. In front of the Flamingo, an 80 ft. tall tower was built. The cylindrical tower was covered with neon rings, the “champagne bubbles” that would light up from the bottom of the sign to its rotating top where “Flamingo” was spelled out in 6 ft. tall neon letters (Barnard 87). In addition, right next to “The Champagne Tower” was a roadside marquee proclaiming the Flamingo’s shows to the passing cars. Most importantly, the Flamingo tower was the first spectacle on the Strip where the sign became part of the attraction. However, more importantly, the tower showed the major difference between downtown and the Strip: space. It would be impossible for any downtown establishment to erect an 80 ft. tall cylinder in front of its casino; even Vegas Vic had to be attached high up on the exterior wall of the Pioneer Club so as not to obstruct the sidewalk. With such an impressive new landmark, the Flamingo began tipping the balance between architecture and sign on the Strip; such architecture/sign imbalance would become the hallmark of large Strip signs.
         In the 1960s, a new sign style was introduced to the Strip that would dominate it for almost three decades: the large pylon sign. As the Strip filled in, competition between hotels and casinos grew fierce. Naturally, just like on Fremont Street, one of the major weapons in this war was the sign; on the Strip, casinos used the large roadside sign to lure customers into their establishments. Over time, the signs became larger and larger, until eventually the giant pylon design came into being. The best example of the pylon sign is none other than the first: the spectacular 180 ft. tall, all-neon Dunes sign erected in 1964. Two neon-covered pylons supported a couple of “Arabian-styled” brackets which encased the 20 ft. tall letters spelling out “Dunes” almost 150 feet above the ground (Barnard 94). Towards the bottom of the sign was a large reader board where information on shows and attractions was displayed, while its bright neon lights danced up and down the sign throughout the night.
         This sign typifies most subsequent Strip signs in that it contains what Venturi, Brown, and Izenour defined as the two specific elements of the Strip sign: (1) “heraldry,” where applied images and symbols are used to identify the hotel (and sign) at a long distance, and (2) information, where shows and hotel details are conveyed to passers-by (67). These signs are built almost entirely on an automotive scale of movement; their large symbols and information can be comprehended quickly and easily. The signs of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s all copied this plan to some degree. The 1968 Stardust sign shows not only how competition forced hotels and casinos to constantly update their signs in order to stay competitive, but also how influential the Dunes sign was: the Stardust sign is essentially a copy of the Dunes, only its heraldry portion is a neon shower of stars falling behind the casino name. The 1976 Circus Circus sign also adheres to this style: it is a metal clown in full make-up and costume, ten stories tall; “Lucky the Clown” points with one hand towards the casino while holding a lollipop in the other; his sandwich board sign also doubles as the sign’s reader board. When Lucky first appeared, he was an immediate success, and he remains one of the most popular signs on the Strip to this day.
         The dominance of the pylon signs, considered by many to be the Golden Age of neon Strip signage, lasted until the late 1980s when themed megaresorts first appeared on the Strip. Megaresorts feature not only hotels and casinos, but also shopping malls and attractions such as aquariums (Mandalay Bay) or a lion habitat (MGM Grand). The demolition of the Dunes (and its magnificent sign) to make way for the Bellagio megaresort serves as a metaphor for both the history and the future of the Strip: in the destruction we see not only the annihilation of the old to make room for the new but also that new megaresorts signal the end of large signs on the Strip. Because of their size, megaresorts are able to use their architecture as the only advertisement.
         With the megaresorts, a pedestrian scale finally arrived on the Strip because of the spectacles in front of many of them. With such sidewalk attractions as Treasure Island’s pirate battles, the Bellagio’s water show, and the Mirage’s volcanoes, people are walking around the Strip to watch the spectacles like they never had before. More and more pedestrian walkways are built around busy intersections to cut back on accidents and promote safety among tourists as well (Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens 227). During my recent visit to Las Vegas, my friends and I walked past Treasure Island and the Mirage at 1 a.m. Expecting to see very few pedestrians out on the Strip at that hour, we were surprised to find large crowds of tourists looking at Treasure Island’s pirate ships and the Mirage’s volcano even though there were no more naval battles or eruptions that night; parents even had their children walking around with them long after midnight!
         The Strip signs take this new pedestrian scene into account with the increase in image screens, combining both the pedestrian and the automotive scales within the signs. Treasure Island, the MGM Grand, the Aladdin, the Sahara, and many more have incorporated the image screen into their street-side pylons; even Circus Circus’s “Lucky the Clown” replaced his sandwich-board marquee for a large image monitor. These monitors are clearly on a pedestrian scale, since the words and images flashing on the screen change far too quickly for a driver to pay attention to both the road and the screen. However, there is still an element of the automotive to them as they continue to have large “heraldry” portions advertising the name of the casino to people driving by on the Strip. Like the Fremont Street Experience downtown, the monitors and the spectacles are part of the new “entertainment environments” that are the new trend in signs and architecture.
         However, the very latest trend among the megaresorts is to make the architecture stand alone as a spectacle, making the building itself the only sign needed. While it was the first megaresort on the Strip, the Mirage does appear architecturally boring, having the ubiquitous hotel towers that all the large hotels seem to have. The opening of the Excalibur in 1990, however, signaled the growing trend in a new direction: instead of being a normal hotel, more resorts now lean towards being the “building-become-sculpture” that Venturi, Brown, and Izenour call a “duck” after the Long Island Duckling (87). However, as ducks, the Excalibur and its descendents no longer have “the need to envelop buildings in neon because of their ability to project fantasy through the very structure of their architectural design”; that is, a sign is unneeded since the resort symbolizes and defines itself by being a duck. Despite this, many of them carry on “the Las Vegas tradition of being fronted by a large neon sign” (Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens 87). The Excalibur is no exception to this trend because it has a large sign fronting the Strip even though it is an architectural duck, calling to mind the Arthurian legend it wishes to portray. The latest resorts, though, have realized that they do not need signs.
         Newly built resorts like New York-New York, the Venetian, and the Paris have become the ultimate architectural duck, where the building is its own primary sign. By recreating famous cities, these new resorts no longer need to have signs. New York-New York is the best example of this trend since it has no large sign fronting the Strip, and only a few smaller, very, very bright signs above pedestrian areas like sidewalks and elevated walkways. With the Statue of Liberty, Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge and assorted other high rises, the Big Apple’s skyline defines the space without the help of a sign, since the skyline represents New York better than any sign ever could. Like New York-New York, the Venetian and Paris are resorts that have successfully hatched architectural ducks using the sights of the famous cities they recreate as their primary signs.
         These ducks are the future of the Strip and signal an end to large neon signs to attract customers. As Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens point out, the rise in a pedestrian street scene owes just as much to the buildings themselves as the sidewalk spectacles in front of them. “Visitors no longer stay within their respective hotels for entertainment but stroll along [the Strip] to admire the themed architectural creations that characterize the new style of casino construction” (87-88), a construction we saw earlier that does not need excessive signage to advertise itself. These buildings define themselves through their architecture and have also become part of the Strip’s show; they also seem to be the future of spectacle. Unfortunately, neon signs will no longer play an important role on the Strip; they are part of a past where spectacle relied on signs to be part of the spectacle on the strip, not the buildings they advertised. Signs will still be important to convey information and advertise, but gone are the days of the large sign in front of a resort. Sadly, on the Strip as well as downtown, the Las Vegas tradition of giving up history in order to remain competitive renders Lucky the Clown and Vegas Vic the patriarchs of a dying breed.

Works Cited

Barnard, Charles F. The Magic Sign: The Electric Art-Architecture of Las Vegas. Cincinnati: ST Publications, 1993.

Gottdiener, M., Claudia C. Collins, and David R. Dickens. Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

Hess, Alan. Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Unreal America. New York: New Press, 1997.

Sidney, George. Dir. Viva Las Vegas. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1964.

Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas (1972). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.