On October 30th, 2014 m’lady and I were in Las Vegas with a day to kill before Phish started their three-night run at the MGM Grand. We spent the day avoiding the casinos as best we could, busily checking off as many unique non-gambling Vegas tourist stops as we could muster. By mid-afternoon we had already visited the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop (where we were happily surprised to find ourselves acting as background eye candy in an episode of Pawn Stars) and cruised up and down Fremont Street in Old Vegas, which ended with a novelty-ridden lunch at the Heart Attack Grill. Our final downtown stop was one I had been wanting to see for years: the Neon Museum.
(Trivia: What did the first-ever neon sign advertise*?)
Of course Las Vegas has long based it’s reputation on over-the-top glitz and hedonism. The hedonism comes from the rather relaxed “sin” laws which skip along hand-in-hand with the city’s famous motto, “What happens in Vegas…” while the glitz comes from the massive illuminated adornments that front virtually every establishment in town (and the sequin costumes on the dancing girls I suppose). In older days the massive light displays generally featured endless tubes of neon twisted into astoundingly complicated and convoluted shapes, and each sign was designed to be bigger and flashier than the one next door. Nowadays many of the casinos have adopted displays of a different ilk in order to attract attention (and gambling dollars). Bellagio has its enormous fountain, Paris Las Vegas sits below a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, and Treasure Island hosts live pirate shows in a huge man-made lake outside their front door. Basically, the Vegas that my dad went to when he was a young buck isn’t there anymore.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Lots of dad’s old Vegas can still be found at the Neon Museum.
The Museum is outdoors, in a fenced-in lot that is so littered with modern ancient glass ’n gas artifacts that it looks like a boneyard, which I guess it primarily is. And a mere $18 affords one the chance to walk a swath cut through these relics, most of which sit baking in the sun waiting their turn to be brought back to life. The Golden Nugget, The Sahara, Stardust, The Moulin Rouge…when the hot desert wind blows through these blown-glass monuments you can almost hear Sammy Davis Jr. singing.
Several of the classic signs have been meticulously restored (at very hefty expense), and they sit shining alongside their decaying brethren. When you see the grandness of these restored pieces of enormity up close it’s impossible not to appreciate how convoluted they are and how much work must have gone into these unique grand storefront ads. Gazing at the immaculate blue and crimson La Concha Motel sign or the shapely Flame Steak & Prime Rib sign with the flashing 24 Hours tag at the bottom struck inside of me an atavistic twang of pre-Todd memories…I almost expected Joe Pesci to be leaning up against one of the signs wearing dark glasses and smoking a cigarette.
Steeped in unexperienced nostalgia and rife with modern ultra-capitalistic history, this was a must-see for me that I’m glad to have checked off my list. That said, I should report that for the average Vegas visitor I suspect the Neon Museum would be a rather missable tourist stop. You’ll get a bigger bang for your eighteen bucks by buying more food than you can finish at the Heart Attack Grill.
Which is definitely something that you should not do. Trust me on this one.
*The first-ever neon sign was displayed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Bent into the single word “neon”, the sign was advertising itself.