The 'Welcome To Las Vegas' sign, appreciated.


by Magnus Shaw.


If you've always been keen to see the very cornerstone of capitalism; a seething hub of avarice and a perfect mechanism for prising people's hard earned cash from their pockets, Las Vegas is for you.

I've just returned from a fifteen day tour of California and Nevada, stopping off in Vegas for a couple of days. Of course, I would have to be more naive than a newborn baby to have expected anything less than a viper's nest of gambling and greed, but I was also hoping for a little of that Sinatra razzmatazz to offset it - or at least a splash of gaudy glamour, to temper the tone of the tumbling dice.

But that was too much wishful thinking. With a single exception: the 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas' sign. There it is at the head of this piece, and I paid it a visit as I made my way out of town and into the desert. I loved it, because it appeared to be the final fragment of a less tawdry Vegas. A memorial to a time when the performances were as important as the poker and the music as attractive as the machines. Apart from anything else it's a classic bit of graphic design.

The city's elders approved funding for the emblem in 1959, to give new visitors a warm welcome and a positive start to their stay. It was built and placed that same year by the company Western Neon, but it was actually designed by one Betty Willis - the daughter of the first assessor of Clark County, Nevada..

Sitting in the central reservation of Las Vegas Boulevard South, the sign is seen as the official southern end of the Vegas Strip. However, technically, it isn't in Las Vegas at all. This area is actually a separate city called Paradise and clears the city limits of Las Vegas by about four miles. A fact widely ignored by tourists and locals alike and one that has seen a recent replica installed within the border of Vegas itself.

This is the original and authentic version and it stands 25 feet in height. Mounted on a standard roadside pole, offset by two flat supports and joined by a cross piece above the top, it is internally lit, with a border of flashing and chasing yellow lights forming its perimeter. The white neon rings across the sign's upper area represent silver dollars and simultaneously spell the word "Welcome." Topping off the sign is an eight-pointed star, outlined in yellow neon.

In keeping with its spirit of civic pride, the reverse of the fascia reads "Drive" on the top line and "Carefully" on the second in red capital letters, with "Come Back" in blue on the third line and "Soon" capitalized in blue.

For such an iconic landmark, the sign's ownership is quite complicated. A company called Young Electric Sign currently owns it, but leases it to Clark County. However, the design itself is in the public domain because it was never copyrighted. Betty Willis considered her work as a gift to the city. Generous indeed, but unsurprisingly her selflessness means the layout appears on literally millions of unofficial souvenirs.

When I visited, it was pleasing to note a small car park has been constructed in the centre of the highway, allowing passing motorists to pull over and pose with the sign (I'll spare you my efforts) - it was also gratifying to find an Elvis impersonator on hand to complete the experience. That said, you don't need to look very hard to find Elvis of all shapes and sizes anywhere in Vegas. Anyway, he didn't charge and in fact, the whole occasion was in refreshing contrast to the 'pay-to-play' approach in every other LV destination.

The sign itself has been blazing almost continuously since 1959, excepting a mark of respect for Earth Hour in 2009 and a small glitch in 2010 when someone forgot to pay the electric bill and it was dark for a few days. The bill came to $60.

And long may it shine. While the rest of this legendary American city seems intent on crashing headlong into a frightening orgy of commerce without class, at least there's one totem to the days of Dean, Frank, Sammy, Peter, dancing girls, cocktails and the mob.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.


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