Sunday, August 23, 2015

History in Lights

What happens when the lights go dark? In Las Vegas, several sets of lights go out every decade. In fact, one grand set of lights that lit up the Riviera just went out this year. Only a couple of months ago, you could still see the neon sign, ghostly dark with shadows and reflections from the lights of the other casinos nearby. Despite the command to pull the switch, bringing darkness, the Neon Museum is waiting nearby to offer a second chapter for those that faced the last curtain call. 

The glitz and glamour of  the Las Vegas strip is always tinged with a sense of déjà vu: As if you’ve seen the extravagance before, perhaps just around the previous corner, or in an old movie from decades ago. The glitter and lights have provided a backdrop of resplendent euphoria. Of course, this effect is intentional, to make you feel prosperous, beautiful, uninhibited, and timeless. But just as pockets empty and beauty fades with age, so too casinos fade in popularity and age tarnishes the shine of the flashing lights.
As a reminder of all that glitters is far from gold, the Neon Museum strives to preserve the essence of Las Vegas, from its early days to the present. With each casino that is shut down, the Museum is at the ready, hoping to secure a piece of the sign for their "boneyard." 

Over the years they have collected many remnants of neon artistry. Not many are in working order, but each comes with stories as big as the current towers of light still shining on the strip, just up the street. That was the first thing that caught my attention during our visit. Standing in the dark, waiting for the tour to start, and seeing the glow on the horizon from the current casinos that have risen up to take the place of the past signs we were about to see. A reflection of humanity and life itself that was too uncomfortable to speak out loud. Most waited in respectful silence, as if we were about to enter a cemetery.
Visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets well in advance as tours sell out quickly. But the tour choice is part of the experience. Tours can be taken during the day or during the night. As a Neon Museum, I figured the neon signs viewed at night would make for the best experience. In hindsight, I now realize either tour would have distinct advantages. While the night tour provides an atmospheric experience of echoes and shadows, the daytime tours would provide an artistic experience of mid-century modern marvels. Many of the signs on display are from the very era of Betty Willis’ famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign that has become a timeless icon of this city: impressive in either the light of day or light of night.

The endeavor that evolved from a Neon Boneyard into a Neon Museum began very small and has grown significantly over a brief number of years. Still, the effort, talent, and resources necessary to bring darkened neon signage back to its glowing glory does not come easy. Each sign is unique in construct, and only shines again after a lengthy labor of love. This slow and costly process means their collection of broken signs vastly outnumbers their collection of brilliantly resurrected signs. 
During the night tour, visitors are guided through a maze of neon art. Sizes, colors, shapes, textures, and messages are as varied as the current array of signs seen on the 21st century strip. But time is always a variable, as evidenced by the patches of rust alongside the brilliant residue of paint and glass. Since Las Vegas is only a little over 100 years old, their earliest signs only go back to the 1930s and 40s. Not only do visitors experience the variance of light and color, but design and construction changes enhance the stories told by the guide. 
Celebrities, gangsters, and early restaurateurs provide the history, but the contours and shapes provide the visual record of 20th century sign making. As only a few of the signs have been restored to fully functional operation, the museum has chosen to light the signs and paths with colorful spotlights that create depth and atmosphere. The darkened shadows with hints of light and color truly echo a time past. Despite the name change from "boneyard" to "museum" there was a sense of cultural death, and many locals still refer to this place as the “boneyard.” Each decade of decadence has put its mark on this city in the form of massive light structures, meant to lure visitors with the promise of riches. But the riches are ethereal, rarely realized, and often out of reach. 
And yet, the lure is still alive. New signs replaced the old, and today’s lights are vastly bigger and brighter. As we walked along in the dark desert air, names of legendary casinos were spoken once again and visually represented by a small remnant of their neon luster: The Golden Nugget, The Silver Slipper, The Stardust, The Sahara, and an older version of Caesars Palace. Note the lack of an apostrophe. The guide reminded everyone that Caesars Palace is named in such a way as to declare that all visitors are wealthy Caesars and this is their Palace.
Each new decade strives to make the impact larger and more breathtaking than the previous, to lure more visitors, with even greater promises. At the Neon Museum, the echoes of past decadence are felt poignantly with each turn of the path. As a result, the beauty in this colorfully lit visage reminds us of the uniqueness of Las Vegas. Everyone comes to Las Vegas for the experience, regardless of what we win or lose here. It is a special place unlike any other, and purely an American mirage built out of the desert. 

P.S. The museum is currently raising funds to restore its newest acquisition, The Desert Rose. They have one week left to reach their ambitious goal! Please consider donating to this groovy cause! 


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