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Neon Museum (Las Vegas, USA)

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Address: P.O Box 147, Las Vegas, NV 89125-0147 / Museum storing and restoring neon signs in Las Vegas

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      19.02.2012 15:05
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      A unique place to learn about an artform which is slowly being replaced by LED

      Las Vegas is a city famous for its lights. It's also the place where neon probably came of age and certainly from the 1930s onwards if you wanted to see neon being put to good use, Vegas was the place to come.

      I have oft said this but it's worth repeating - Las Vegas isn't a city which values its past much and as a result things that were icons in a past era no longer exist today. Witness the Dunes Tower or the Desert Inn hotel, both vanished forever.

      Fortunately some people saw the way the wind was blowing and decided to try to do something about this, and so the Neon Museum was born. The Museum's aim is to save and preserve some of the iconic signs in Vegas, with many of the restored signs now available to view at any time either on Fremont Street or on Las Vegas Boulevard itself.

      There is also the Boneyard which is where old signs are kept and I had long harboured a desire to visit this place. Unfortunately circumstances dictated I couldn't go on my last two trips to Vegas but I was determined to finally visit this time round and I can say I really am so glad that I did.

      ~~Location~~

      The Neon Museum and Boneyard are located on the northern end of Las Vegas Boulevard, just to the north of Bonanza Road. This area can be a little dodgy after dark but it's perfectly safe during the day.
      There is a large car park adjacent to the Museum which is pretty easy to find due to the huge silver slipper sign - which is a silver lit up shoe for the uninitiated - in the middle of the road and the large Neon Museum sign beckoning you in.

      The 113 Max bus goes past the museum too and it can be picked up at the Bonneville Transit Center with four buses an hour.

      ~~Admission~~

      If you want to visit the Neon Museum, you have to book first. If you do not have a reservation, they won't let you in so check the museum's website carefully before you go. Generally the museum offers two tours a day, Tuesday to Saturday. The museum requests a minimum donation of $15 per person for the tour and this must be paid in advance. You should ideally book at least 2 weeks before your departure for Las Vegas to ensure a place.

      The museum is working on having a permanent display of exhibits in the future which will make it easier for people to turn up and gain entry on the spot but they are unable to confirm when this will open. The website does state spring of 2012 but they have stated rough opening dates in the past which haven't amounted to anything so take that with a pinch of salt.

      The museum advises you wear closed toe shoes when in the Boneyard as there are bits of broken glass and stray pieces of metal underfoot.

      Because you generally have to stay beside the guide the museum isn't really suitable for small children.

      ~~The Tour~~

      We arrived at the Neon Museum just before our allocated tour time of 12.00 pm. We were met by some friendly volunteers - everyone at the museum is a volunteer - and everyone was asked to sign a form stating we were not taking photographs to sell on. The only person exempted from this waiver was my daughter on account of the fact she is under 18. The museum welcomes people taking photographs for personal use however.

      After we had done this we waited for our guide to arrive and for the tour to begin.

      Our guide was a young woman who is Las Vegas born and bred, which was good. Unfortunately our tour was one of her first and she got flustered and forgetful at times, which wasn't so good. She was pretty knowledgeable about the signs although I did find it a little strange that she would ask us where the letters spelling "Neon" on the Neon Museum sign originally came from when we had been encouraged to read a plaque telling us exactly which casino sign the letters came from before she started.

      Following her introduction we walked round to the Boneyard, which is where the old signs are housed. We were told to stay together as much as possible, something most people were happy to do. You are not allowed to touch the signs either.


      The Boneyard is home to several famous Las Vegas signage, including the original Stardust hotel sign, Betty Willis' iconic Moulin Rouge sign, the Desert Inn signage and the original neon Golden Nugget casino sign along with some less well known examples of the art of the sign.

      Not all signs are neon of course - and it's interesting to note that the sign for the Neon Museum doesn't have any neon in it at all, instead playing host to a plethora of incandescent light bulbs. Many of the larger signs - which when in use would have been located more than likely many feet above the ground - have poles which were used by the brave men who replaced these bulbs on a pretty regular basis and our guide explained few of them believed the poles could bear their weight safely but did the job anyway.

      Our guide explained almost every sign individually to us, even if it was to only briefly point it out to us. Some signs obviously got more coverage than others, with the horseshoe from Binion's Horseshoe receiving a lot of time in particular. Benny Binion was a man who was involved in many, many dodgy dealings but according to our guide he was loved in Las Vegas for his many acts of largesse, including helping out underprivileged kids. That our guide's dad had been one of those underprivileged kids was the icing on the cake really.

      We also learned about the Sassy Sally sign, which used to be home to the woman who still sits atop Fremont Street, except she's now called Vegas Vickie because she married Vegas Vic - the huge neon lit cowboy nearby.

      None of the signs in the boneyard are operational, and our guide explained to us just how expensive it is to restore the signs to working order. She pointed us to a letter from the old Sahara hotel sign and told us that one letter from the six that made up the sign had been restored for another organisation at a cost of $20,000.

      We also learned that Steve Wynn, the man who bought up the Desert Inn and turned it into Wynn, hates neon and considers it to be cheap and vulgar. I guess I wasn't really surprised by this as his Wynn hotel is nondescript and boring on the outside which is sadly the way Vegas hotels seem to be going these days.

      The tour lasted just under an hour and it was enjoyable, although I would have preferred it if our guide hadn't asked us questions about the signs when very few of us knew the answers. I am a bit of a geek when it comes to old Las Vegas so I felt akin to the school swot when she did this. I'd have preferred she just tell us about the signs and presume we knew nothing.

      Once the tour was finished we were told we could view the second boneyard which is chained off. You can't go inside but you can view some of the signs kept there, including the Lady Luck sign and the original Golden Nugget casino signs from 1946.

      ~~The Living Museum~~

      You can see some of the many signs the Neon Museum has restored in the so-called "Living Museum". This can be viewed on foot on Fremont Street where you will encounter lights which at first seem rather random until you read the plaques beside them. There are also signs on Las Vegas Boulevard itself - and are part of the Scenic Byway there.

      These signs include the lamp from the original Aladdin hotel, the aforementioned Silver Slipper and Binion's Horseshoe, amongst many others.

      Finally the museum is also home to the lobby from the old La Concha motel, which is a very striking building indeed. The lobby will eventually be the visitor centre for the museum and I have to say I do hope I will be able to visit this in the future.

      ~~Conclusion~~

      If you are interested in the history of Las Vegas, or in the art of signs from the past 80 years or so the Neon Museum is definitely worth a visit. The volunteers here are ensuring that some of the most iconic signs are being preserved to ensure future generations can enjoy the humour and in some cases sheer ingenuity that went into the making of these signs.

      Steve Wynn may not approve of neon but for me nothing beats some of the "moving" neon signs the Museum has restored and which illuminate Fremont Street at night, including the sign for a Liquor Store which features a bottle moving towards a glass. LED signs just cannot compete with the artistry of signage such as that, and they also lack the human touch.

      My only caveat is to reiterate the importance of booking a tour ahead - which can easily be done online by credit card - to avoid disappointment. I would also advise if you are visiting Las Vegas in high summer to ensure you have bottled water and a hat to protect against the sun. Do that and you should enjoy your visit to a quirky but truly fascinating place which is preserving some of the most important parts of Las Vegas' history.

      http://www.neonmuseum.org/

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