The history of Las Vegas is written in neon. That language, however, is endangered, as LEDs and computerized screens are rapidly replacing the “spectaculars” of old that, for so long, defined the city.
The tide seems unstoppable—yet a few brave souls are still stacking the sandbags. Most of you, I assume, are familiar with the Neon Museum and the work it does and the hordes it attracts. Kudos to them!
But the focus of this photo essay is lesser-known or unexpected entities who are, in their own unique way, keeping the neon burning.
Jerry Misko’s fascination with neon began at an early age. He recalls sitting in the back seat of the family car and staring at the sign of Foxy’s Firehouse Casino—a slot machine being doused by a sexy fox wearing a fire hat—as they crossed the Strip on Sahara Avenue. Years later, he graduated from Bishop Gorman, which was fronted by a neon cross.
Since he grew up surrounded by such images, it’s no surprise they made it into his work when he began painting after college.
“Neon symbolizes a lot,” says Misko, who attended USC. “Sex, money, love, religion. To me it’s a metaphor for all parts of life, because it’s always been the background of mine.”
Because it’s always been there, Misko, perhaps more than others, notices when it’s gone. He values neon beyond mere eye candy and seems frustrated that business owners (and others) haven’t done more to preserve it. Foxy’s sign, he says, was simply thrown away.
“I hope my art helps keep neon alive in the hearts and minds of people,” Misko says. “It’s not keeping the actual neon alive, but the idea and the energy of it.”
Photos by Rachel Bellinsky
Jeff Anthony, owner of Vintage Vegas on Main Street, half-jokingly calls himself the “Dr. Frankenstein of Neon.” He’ll find something discarded in the desert—a tailgate or tire—and bring it back to life with the colorless noble gas.
“Whatever I find is my canvas,” Anthony says. “Neon is my paint.”
Anthony doesn’t bend the neon himself. He designs it and contracts it out to Paul’s Neon, then mounts it on his “canvas”: “Chevrolet” on the rusted tailgate or “V8” framed by the bald tire. It’s then displayed in Vintage Vegas, which, according to the sandwich-board sign out front, sells, “Dead people’s junk and cool crap. And a couple other things.” He’s also occasionally commissioned to create the pieces.
Through Vintage Vegas, which is co-owned and co-operated by his wife May, Anthony feels he’s doing his part to keep the fading art form glowing.
“Paint will dry and crack,” he says, “but neon will always light the sky.”
You expect to see neon while walking the boulevard or driving Fremont Street, but in your own backyard while sitting in a hot tub sipping fine wine? That experience is reserved for the privileged few, including Bette LaCombe.
LaCombe’s late husband Paul was an artist who was fascinated with neon, and he convinced her to attend the Stardust’s closing auction and bid on a sign. They won at $800.
The sign, which flashes “You are Entering the Twilight Zone,” was installed on the back of their stucco home on the east side of the valley.
“When we lit it our neighbors were clapping,” recalls LaCombe, who’s from New York City. “They always knew we were home and in the backyard having a glass of wine when they saw the purple glow.”
Paul passed in 2013, but his love of neon lives on in Bette. She turns on the sign whenever she’s in the backyard and volunteers at the Neon Museum once or twice a week.
In preparation for her volunteer work, she read everything about Las Vegas she could get her hands on, discovering her own passion.
“I was influenced by my husband,” says LaCombe, who has willed her sign to the Neon Museum. “I was a staid, square IBM exec when I married him and I found his world fascinating.
“But through him, I discovered my own niche. I love the history of Las Vegas. I love the impossibility of it and the excitement and all the things that make it so interesting.”
Photos by Rachel Bellinsky
The Downtown Project
The Downtown Project has its critics, but it deserves some credit for saving the signs of properties it has purchased. These include the John E. Carson Hotel, Fergusons, the Western and the Ambassador.
And while it seems to take neon preservation seriously, DTP is not afraid to have fun with the signs. When some of the lights of the Western Hotel sign went out and it randomly read “We Hot,” they took the hint and fixed the sign, programming it to flash “We Hot.” The Fergusons sign flashes “Fun.”
“We like to come up with unique ideas and sayings,” says Dave Duggan, director of construction and property operations for the Downtown Project. “We’re all about that.”
In a Boston brogue, Duggan says they’re also all about preserving and embracing the history of Downtown Las Vegas. They even maintain a burgeoning boneyard, where old signs are stored.
The ultimate goal, suggests Duggan, is to restore the signs and bring them back to life.
How many Las Vegans are willing to dig through a mound of garbage to salvage a neon sign? Judging by how many signs have disappeared over the years, it would seem very few. Antique store/bar ReBAR owner Derek Stonebarger is an exception. When he heard that Davy’s Locker dive bar was trashing its sign, he drove over in his truck and dug it out, piece by piece, stirring a homeless man who was sleeping nearby in a cardboard box.
Stonebarger is a businessman, but his passion for preserving neon seems sincere.
“Neon signs are our history,” he says. “They are Las Vegas. That’s what Las Vegas was all about ever since it started. Whoever had the biggest and best sign would lure in the customers.”
Stonebarger counts the Davy’s Locker sign among his best finds. He says it’s going to be restored by Falcon Signs and installed in his new restaurant, the Nevada Taste Site, which is scheduled to open around the end of the year. (The sign will not be for sale.)
He also owns a few Olympic Garden strip club signs. One of them has been restored and installed on the wall of ReBAR, priced at $6,000.
“It’s priced that high because I don’t want to get rid of it,” he says.
Stonebarger thinks Las Vegas is doing a decent job of preserving neon, but says we need more information available to business owners who may be getting rid of their signs. The Neon Museum does great work, he adds, but it can’t save every sign, because some business owners don’t know or care about history.
“There could be more preservation of the signs,” Stonebarger concludes. “If the Neon Museum can’t work a deal with the owner, there are other ways to save the signs. That’s what we’re proving. Just go out there and do it.”