I heard a story once. About how, during the prohibition, gambling rooms and bars had to be hidden from the law in Las Vegas. So they were housed in plain brick nondescript units, as boring and un-noticeable as possible. There were no windows so no risk that the cops would know there were people inside at night. By all accounts they flourished.
Going legal in Nevada.
And when prohibition was lifted, and then gambling relegalised in Nevada in 1931, the suddenly legal owners wanted ways to to advertise that they were there, to attract more clientele, without investing in new premises. Luckily for them, neon had been invented, and very quickly every bar and casino in Las Vegas was covered in brightly coloured neon lights and signs to attract the crowds. While the premises did indeed get replaced by ever newer and bigger and grander buildings, the neon has remained a constant image of Vegas.
And then in the 1990s it got overtaken by LED, and suddenly neon was expensive and temperamental and old fashioned. And one by one, the old signs and decorations got replaced, the old neon was scrapped.
Neon death and resurrection.
But some of those classic old neon signs live on, or at least are lying in limbo waiting for a saviour, at the Neon Boneyard, part of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. A passionate group of enthusiasts work on recovering as many of the old signs as possible (currently about 150 in the Boneyard), and look for sponsors to pay for their restoration. And the best bit is, we can go visit the Neon Boneyard and get right up close with all this colourful history. In a barren dusty lot just a bit north of the strip, a small fee of $15 will let you join a tour around the boneyard, led by one of those passionate volunteers that make this organisation work. This is a down-and-dirty tour, there’s plenty of debris and broken glass on the ground, and enclosed flat shoes must be worn for your own safety.
The rawness of what is basically a neon dump, with the stories of old Vegas that each sign invokes from the volunteer guide, makes this an engrossing and fascinating afternoon in the sun, and my favourite attraction in Vegas.
Neon in working order.
And for a taste of what the neon looks like in working order, in situ, go to Fremont St in old Vegas. The Neon museum has a self-guided walking tour in their outdoor downtown “gallery” of restored working signs . The gallery begins in front of the Neonopolis at Las Vegas Boulevard near the Hacienda Horse and Rider and includes the original Aladdin’s Lamp. The gallery extends to the 3rd Street cul-de-sac adjacent to The Fremont Street Experience canopy and includes The Flame Restaurant, Chief Court Motel, Andy Anderson, The Red Barn, Wedding Information, Nevada Motel, and Dots Flowers. So when you check out the Fremont St experience one night, don’t forget to do the walking tour of the Neon signs as well
My tip for the Neon Boneyard – book early, there are limited spots and it books out fast. To book, go to Neon Boneyard. Oh, and turn up on time, once the guide has taken the group through the barbed wire security gate into the lot, he locks it, and you can’t come in!