You don’t have to search hard to find glitz and glamour in Las Vegas, but Leigh-Ann Pow prefers the quirky variety at the retro Neon Museum.
Climbing into a taxi at the Bellagio in the heart of Las Vegas’s famed Strip, the irony of my intended destination – the Neon Museum – doesn’t escape me.
The whole city is a neon museum; on the way I pass the Flamingo, with its pulsating pink neon sign casting an eerie pallor on the faces of the frozen margarita-sipping Missourian tourists basking in its glory, and the Golden Nugget, which ha s enough bulbs screwed into its display to light a small yet plucky Central American republic.
Opened in 2013 in the Downtown area, the museum is, in fact, as much about the unique history of Las Vegas as it is about the flashy artforms (some say eyesores; you say potato…) that characterise it.
Sitting at the very beginning of the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard), the main structure of the visitors’ centre is itself a touchstone of the city’s heyday: the relocated La Concha Motel lobby (designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects, who was also tasked with designing houses for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball) is a mid-20th century wonder of curvilinear lines that, as the name implies, resembles a giant shell.
The La Concha forms the gateway to the Neon Boneyard, an outdoor space where more than 200 superannuated vintage neon signs are gathered together in a carefully curated cluster of rust, colour and kitsch. The regular guided tours are the only option for getting in here, but they also afford visitors a colourful potted history of the city and its past inhabitants, delivered by dedicated and knowledgeable volunteer guides.
My 20-something guide has a cute ’50s thing going on, with her slightly retro glasses and Converse and ankle socks. Her laconically deadpan American delivery does nothing to blunt the fantastical tales she tells.
As we stand in front of a giant horseshoe that used to front Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel she details the dastardly dealings of Benny Binion, a Las Vegas pioneer and mob boss who was known to have killed at least three men but only ended up doing time in Leavenworth for tax evasion.
Another is a reminder of the days when casinos here were segregated: the Moulin Rouge was the first racially integrated casino, where Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte used to socialise following their headlining shows at other casinos where they weren’t welcome once the curtain went down.
Watching the atomic letters of the Stardust sign light up one by one, we are told that hotels in the area used to provide guests with a schedule of the nuclear test blasts taking place in the surroundings desert in case they wanted to pack a picnic and go watch!
Tours of the Neon Boneyard take place until lunchtime each day, avoiding the desert heat of the afternoon (the daytime timetable is further truncated during the sizzling summer months), then start again in the evening, which is the best time to visit to see the restored signs (there are nine in total) in all their gaudy glory.
Of course, if you miss a place on the tour (bookings are a must) you can always join the midwesterners back at the Flamingo, but for me the glitz seems to possess a lot less glamour when frozen cocktails are involved.
Three more Downtown Las Vegas museums for the glitz-phobic
1. The Mob Museum: Officially the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, this interactive space housed in the former courthouse and post office focuses on the history of gangsters and crime fighters in Las Vegas and beyond.
2. Las Vegas Natural History Museum: Exhibitions cover all sorts, including an Egyptian sarcophagus, marine life and CSI on a dinosaur mummy.
3. Discovery Children’s Museum: An interactive children’s museum with nine themed exhibition spaces covering everything from science and invention to sustainability.