You have just landed in Las Vegas - the glimmering lights and towering hotels shining in the foreground, begging you for an adventurous weekend. As you cruise up the Vegas Strip, heading towards the vein of the city, you see it: "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas," sticking out with its neon colors and sharp, angular shapes. You see a long line of people in front of it, snapping picture after picture - smiling, laughing. You might even see an Elvis impersonator dancing in the parking lot. It's a fabulous entry into one of the most fabulous cities on Earth.
But how did this sign get to be what it is today?
Betty Willis, the designer of the sign, passed away last month on April 19. In honor of her memory and her contributions to Las Vegas, we wanted to share her story and the history of one of her most famous art pieces that has become a significant part of the Vegas landscape.
Betty Willis was born in Overton, Nev., an old Mormon settlement on the upper ridges of Lake Mead about 65 miles away from Las Vegas. After growing up there, she moved to Los Angeles in 1942, where she studied at an art school and began drawing ads for a local theatre company.
While in Los Angeles, Willis became heavily influenced by the Googie architecture movement. Also known as 'Doo Wop,' it is a form of architecture utilizing curved roofs, geometric shapes, and bold, neon colors. It was heavily influenced by car culture of the 1950s, with themes extending into the Atomic Age and the Space Race (think of Jetsons architecture). This style would have a tremendous impact on her future projects when she returned to Nevada.
In the 1950s, Betty moved back to Las Vegas and worked at a local courthouse, before moving on to the design industry, working for the Western Neon Sign Company. During her tenure there, she designed the sign for the Moulin Rouge Hotel, the first desegregated hotel casino in the Vegas Valley, in 1955.
Reminiscing of the old signs welcoming people visiting Los Angeles, studying the Googie Art Movement, and being inspired by the shapes of the local Vegas businesses, Willis created the now famous sign Las Vegas sign in 1959. It was Willis' idea to add the word "Fabulous" to the sign. Willis never trademarked her sign design, saying it was her "gift to the city" (she also felt the city needed free publicity to advertise its growing entertainment industry).
In her design, she utilized different shapes and lines (a very common feature for Googie architecture) and differing typography. The seven silver dollars that spell out "Welcome" were homage to the state of Nevada's nickname ("The Silver State"); Willis also felt that the silver dollars made the sign "look lucky." Her use of different sizes and fonts helped the sign stand out and catch the eye - almost the same way how the Vegas Strip stands out from the surrounding desert landscape.
Originally, the sign was to have "Keep Nevada Green" written on the back. However, Willis wanted a friendlier send-off (changing it to "Drive Carefully, Come Back Soon"), thinking it would relay the message would be better for business and encourage guests to visit Vegas in the future.
Today, the sign is owned by Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO), who leases it back to Clark County. Replicas were made of the sign (one at the Strip and 4th Street, near the current Fremont Street Experience; the other installed on Boulder Highway, close to Tropicana Avenue). In 2008, a small parking lot was opened to the public, allowing visitors to take pictures by the sign safely (before the installation of the parking lot, visitors were forced to run across Las Vegas Boulevard without use of a crosswalk or traffic light). The sign switched to solar power in early 2014.
Willis continued designing signs in the Vegas area until she retired at 77. After her passing, her work has come under scrutiny once again, with a new generation of visitors appreciating her work and history. She saw a future for Vegas; a future of neon, of growth, of success. Her contributions with her signs have left an imprint on all of their visitors, and it will be a must-see place to visit in Las Vegas for years to come.
Featured photo by welcomia / Shutterstock