The Neon Museum in Las Vegas: A Gift of Memory to Baby Boomers
At the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, the “Boneyard” is stuffed full of the faded glory of Las Vegas’ Golden Age. Beyond all the new LED bling of the Strip, this is where the neon of the city’s past went to die. Let the magic of these old signs and markers bring memory alive and remind us of what was once there.
It’s 1959. My sister and I have piled into the back of the family’s white ’55 Mercury station wagon. We are off on the annual family summer vacation, a road trip to Somewhere, USA.
The metal cooler full of tuna sandwiches and thick-bottled Cokes has been stowed. The coated burlap water bag is hanging from the Merc’s hood ornament, ready in case the radiator overheats in the scorching California sun. Later, I’ll plead thirst at a rest stop and ask for a swallow of that water, brackish, hot, and tasting like you’d been chewing on dry straw. Disgusting really, but I always beg for it. It’s part of the road trip experience I crave. It’s a built-in part of my happiest childhood memories.
Of course, everyone in the car knows where the first night’s stop will be. It’s always the same. No matter where we’re headed out to from our Southern California home, that first night is the same. Whether we’re heading east to the Grand Canyon, north to our favorite fishing spot on Clear Lake, northwest to the Canyonlands of Utah, there is one constant.
Las Vegas is on the way there.
Because my mom loves Vegas and pulling for hours on the “One-Armed Bandit” at a nickel a pull. And my dad loves my mom and loves giving her what she wants. So Vegas is always on the way.
Memories That Don’t Fade
Of course, it’s no longer 1959. The white Mercury station wagon went to auto heaven decades ago. Both my parents are gone too. Las Vegas has changed and grown and gotten way more sophisticated. But memory is a funny thing. It fades and shapeshifts but refuses to give up entirely. I can still taste that burlap-y swallow of desert-hot water. I can still feel the shock of cannonballing into a cold Las Vegas motel pool on a 110 degree desert day.
And I remember the neon. I remember all that gleaming, glittering, enticing neon.
The neon was always how we knew we had arrived in Las Vegas. The neon made my mom sit up and smile. It made my sister and me wake up from the flattened back of the station wagon to shake out our hair and pull on our tennis shoes. It roused my dad from the highway-induced stupor of driving an endless road through the desert.
The neon shouted to us: “Welcome back, Meyer family. Let’s have some fun!”
Revisiting the Icons of Old Las Vegas at The Neon Museum
These kinds of memories have their own special magic. And they can be spurred by many things—sights, smells, a sound, a curve of light. I wrote this memory of our early trips to Las Vegas shortly after visiting The Boneyard at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. I’d like to take you there, to re-visit a bit of my own childhood, and maybe yours too. And if you never visited Vegas during its Golden Age, let yourself imagine how it looked back then—when The Stardust sign could be seen from 60 miles away, when The Mint façade undulated, when the neon lights gleamed and glittered and invited.
Come with me to see the bones of old Las Vegas now on display in the more than 200 old neon signs set out at The Boneyard of The Neon Museum. And see why maybe you’ll want to make that trip to the Nevada desert to see these memories of Old Las Vegas for yourself.
The entrance sign to the Neon Museum and Boneyard is itself a part of the display. The lettering on old Vegas neon signs was often the most important part, and typography styles became instantly recognizable. This sign copies some iconic neon typography. The first “N” is classic Golden Nugget style. The “E” is from the famous Caesar’s Palace font. The “O” is copied from downtown’s Binion’s Horseshoe casino. And the final “N” celebrates the Desert Inn of the Rat Pack days.
The Neon Museum entry and Visitor Center is housed in the renovated lobby of the La Concha Motel, which stood on the southern Strip. It was dismantled, moved and rebuilt for the Neon Museum after the motel closed in 2004. The lobby, its shape mirrored in this sign, was a curvilinear concrete shell designed in the “Googie” style of architecture. The style was enormously popular in Las Vegas and Southern California and later came to be called “Mid-Century Modern.” It is sometimes also referred to as “Space Age” or “Atomic” design.
The jagged galaxy of the Stardust Resorts sign, done in Googie atomic lettering, was built by the Young Electric Sign Company, the premier neon sign company in Las Vegas. It played firmly into the country’s fascination with all things atomic, nuclear and space related in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s one of the larger signs at the Neon Museum.
The Sahara Hotel and Casino, on the Las Vegas Strip, was one of the famous “Rat Pack” casinos, a hang-out for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. The sign is one of the better-preserved examples in the Neon Museum’s Boneyard.
The Yucca Motel was built around 1950. It sat on the northern Strip, in the wedding chapel area. It was demolished in 2010.
I’m not sure where this sign came from, but it is exactly representative of the look of many downtown Las Vegas casinos in the 1950s and ’60s. This Old Western/Circus look was very popular, adding to the theme park feel of the area.
The Silver Slipper Gambling Hall opened in 1950. This giant revolving and blinking shoe sat on a post atop the casino. In 1968, the property was purchased by Howard Hughes. The paranoid millionaire apparently was afraid of the shoe. He thought someone would put a camera in the toe, which stopped and reversed its revolutions when it was pointed directly into his penthouse at the Desert Inn. He had the revolving mechanism dismantled and then turned the lights off.
Some of the pieces at the Neon Museum and Boneyard are still in pretty good condition. Others, like these peeling letters, are sad reminders of how many years have passed since my family drove into Las Vegas every summer.
There is a huge Paris hotel/casino/resort now on the Las Vegas Strip, complete with a replica of the Eiffel Tower, sidewalk cafes and a giant Montgolfier balloon. But earlier, there was this Paris, now nothing but a relic and a memory at the Neon Museum.
In my mind, I can still see those lights flashing and blinking and lighting up the desert sky. The Mint, shown on this vintage matchbook cover, was my mom’s favorite place to play the slots until her arm, as she said, “was like to fall off.”
Visit the Neon Museum for Yourself
If you go to Las Vegas, do plan to visit the Neon Museum and Boneyard. Your memories are not mine, and perhaps you didn’t travel to Las Vegas as a child. But I think most of our generation can relate to the era of neon and the mid-century modern look that so many of these pieces display. It’s one of the most fun things to do in Las Vegas.
Let yourself walk through the Boneyard. Listen to the stories these signs tell of a past Golden Age. Look and imagine. And remember.
The Neon Museum and Boneyard is located at 770 Las Vegas Blvd. North, not far from Downtown Las Vegas and The Fremont Street Experience. There is free parking available.
When visiting the Neon Museum, you used to have to sign up for the one-hour docent-guided tour, which I recommend because the docents are very knowledgeable about the history of each sign. It is now also possible to walk through the Boneyard on your own, without joining a tour. The grounds are approximately two acres with well laid-out paths.
General admission at the Neon Museum and Boneyard without a tour is available from 9am to 4pm on most days. Docent-led tours can be booked seven days a week. They are offered several times a day, both day tours and night tours, with hours varying by the season. Tours often sell out, so booking in advance online is highly recommended. There is also a 30-minute film that includes a light show of many of the signs and their history. Ticket prices range from $20-42, depending on what level of experience you want to book.
You can book a tour on the Neon Museum’s website here.
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