Two groups define our city’s identity: its people, who work hard to keep it fun, and its resort infrastructure, which was made by its people but has a life of its own. Early this week, we lost two icons that figured prominently into shaping that identity like few others have—a pair of gifted commercial artists whose enduring works help give life to Las Vegas.
Betty Willis (pictured above), designer of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign as well as iconic signs for the Blue Angel and Moulin Rouge, and Brian “Buzz” Leming, designer of classic neon signs for the Dunes, Barbary Coast, Las Vegas Club and many others, died within hours of each other on April 19. Willis, 91, died at her home in Overton, Nevada; Leming, 74, passed away in Lavaca, Arkansas.
“To say [Willis’] designs defined Las Vegas is an understatement; the Fabulous Las Vegas sign has become the heart we wear on our sleeve.”
The cultural and stylistic influence these two designers have had on modern-day Las Vegas is impossible to overstate. Willis’ 1959 “Welcome” sign, which she intentionally never copyrighted, went viral before “going viral” even existed as a concept. The diamond-shaped, starburst-topped sign has become the lasting visual shorthand for all things Las Vegas, readily identifiable even in silhouette. Every week, thousands of tourists pose for pictures with the sign, which stands as the biggest star this town has ever produced.
“She called it ‘The Little Sign that Could,’” says Willis’ daughter, Marjorie Holland. “I hope she’s remembered as this town’s birthmother of ‘Fabulous.’”
Danielle Kelly, executive director of the Neon Museum, suggests Willis will be remembered for much more than that, believing she deserves recognition as a trailblazer in the field of commercial art. “Betty Willis was a woman designer dominating an almost exclusively masculine field during the 1950s and 1960s—a kind of Peggy Olson for her profession,” Kelly says, referencing the popular Mad Men character. “To say her designs defined Las Vegas is an understatement; the Fabulous Las Vegas sign has become the heart we wear on our sleeve.”
Kelly’s praise is equally strong for Leming, whose sign for the Barbary Coast—reportedly one of the late designer’s favorites, now in the Neon Museum’s collection—remains one of Las Vegas’ most-photographed, having presided over the Strip’s most prestigious corner for years. “I was nervous when I first met Buzz, but he was so fun to talk to that we hit it off,” Kelly says. “As with everyone I meet in the field, from designers to sign techs, he demonstrated surprise that anyone cared about the signs or his work on them. But he was so proud of his designs, and he remains a legend for designers everywhere.”
Ken Moultray worked alongside Leming for 40 years and says that despite being acknowledged as “one of the premier sign designers across the country,” his friend was down-to-earth and approachable. “He was always even-tempered and helpful to those who worked with him,” Moultray says.
As is the case when any of our city’s legends pass on, the deaths of Willis and Leming leave a permanent void, particularly for those who have an affinity for Vegas history. On the bright side, the lives and works of both designers will be celebrated for generations to come: Many of their signs pretty much form the walls of the Neon Museum’s “boneyard,” and several other works—particularly Leming’s Las Vegas Club and Lawless Center signs, and Willis’ “Fabulous” and Blue Angel—are still in place, still doing their appointed jobs. We’re lucky to have so many tributes to their creative genius still with us, continually informing who we are.
And by Moultray’s reckoning, we shouldn’t want to keep all this light to ourselves. “My theory,” he says “is that there must be a lot of great signs needed up in heaven.”