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I had a plan, a good plan and one that I was sure would be foolproof in beating the crowds to one of the most famous signs in the world. I landed in Las Vegas at 9pm on a Monday night with the temperatures just cool enough to put on a light jacket. While everyone on the plane and then in the airport was racing to get their luggage and their rental car, I took my time and slowly walked thru the airport. I had a plan that if I got out of the airport, got my rental car, and made a stop at Walmart, after all that, it would be after 10 and there should be almost no line to see the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign.
As I waited to see if my luggage had made it with me to Las Vegas from New York or if it got lost I thought about how in the world had I never seen the sign before. I had once lived in the city, granted it wasn’t for very long, ad this would be my first time seeing an icon up close. They say you shouldn’t linger in the past too long and this was not a time to start. I got my things, got my car, and survived a trip to Walmart, time to make the short ride to the neon sign…and it was packed. I had a plan and it failed. I would have to come back in the morning.
But how did a sign end up so famous? Well, it has been at the same spot on Las Vegas Boulevard since 1959. It was designed by Betty Wills, a native of Las Vegas. Betty worked at a neon company named Western Neon when a salesman named Ted Rogich asked her if she would design a sign that the county wanted to place as a way to welcome those coming to Las Vegas on what was then the main highway into the city, U.S. Route 91.
Until Interstate 15 was built, this was the first thing you would see as rolled into the city from Los Angles, It was a notice that said, you have arrived to sin city. Las Vegas and the sign became attached to each other. Something that helps in the spread of the sign is that it was not copyrighted by Betty, who said it was her gift to see the city, and now you see it everywhere. I know I got a magnet with my name on it this last trip there.
The next morning I got up and drove straight to the sign, it wasn’t even 7am yet but there was already a busload of tourists ready to strike a pose in front of the sign. I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself this early in the day so I just went around all the people looking at the sign from all sides. Wow! what a sign. I still couldn’t believe that I had never come to see it when I lived there. It was like living in New York City and never going to see The Statue of Liberty, which by the way is super common.
Now like many things in life, the sign is smaller in person than It is in pictures. It is 25-feet-tall but in person, it felt smallish, like I could almost reach out and touch it, which I of course couldn’t. Across the top are seven white circles that are supposed to be silver dollars with the letters for Welcome inside of them. The whole sign is a type of architecture known as Googie, which is a mash of futurism, the Atomic Age, and car culture. The backside of the sign, by the way, which is often forgotten says “Drive Carefully, Come Back Soon”. I was really awestruck by the whole thing.
An interesting note of not only the sign but of most of the strip is that most of it is not in the city of Las Vegas but in the town of Paradise but most locals and tourists don’t give a damn and call it all Las Vegas. This is why Clark County and not the City of Las Vegas was looking to put up the sign, as Paradise is unincorporated and run by the county. Another note is that the sign is not owned by Clark County but instead by the company that bought Western Neon in the early 1960s, Young Electric Sign Company, which lease it to Clark County.
I looked at the sign and took my pictures, the line was long and getting longer but people had smiles all around. They were in Vegas, it was early in the day and many drinks would be downed as the day went on. I had other things to see and do on this mild Las Vegas day and so off I drove.
There isn’t a lot to the sign, it’s a simple item that lets you know where you are at and it does a great job of it. Sometimes things that are well known don’t have a crazy backstory or some scandal attached to them. Sometimes an icon stands on its own.
All pictures are by me.