Illuminating signs of the times

Tim Richards visits Las Vegas' unconventional, artfully cluttered Boneyard of neon signs.

''My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!''

I have Shelley's 1818 poem on my mind as I stand in the grounds of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. The Romantic poet was mocking a forgotten tyrant of the Egyptian desert, recalled only by his crumbling statue; but it's not hard to transpose his point of view to the glittering resort city.

It's 45 degrees in the shade on a scorching summer's day. Around me in the outdoor gallery known as the Boneyard are vast neon signs, their paint peeling, artfully cluttered against each other.

Weathered as they are, these signs are survivors, often outliving the casino buildings to which they were affixed. Vegas has never been a town content to rest on its laurels.

Even more so than the rest of the US, the city has worshipped the new, constantly reinventing itself and demolishing venues deemed unfashionable or outmoded.

However, their neon signs were largely owned by the company that created them, Utah-based Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). Before each implosion or conventional demolition it would remove its old signs for possible reuse, storing them in a fenced-off lot. Without any thought of artistic merit, the nucleus of an unconventional art museum was formed.

After years of preparation, the Neon Museum's Boneyard opened in late 2012. Visitors join tours from the dramatically curved visitor centre, once the lobby of a 1960s motel built in the wild Googie style of 1950s California.

On the day I visit, relentlessly upbeat Ian Zeitzer is our guide. He leads us through the heat into the Boneyard, explaining that the seemingly random jumble of pieces is actually arranged in chronological order, tracing the city's development from modest motels and casinos to today's vast resorts.

The first signs he points out are from the Moulin Rouge and the Golden Nugget, venues synonymous with the city's early, heady mix of entertainment, gambling and Mob connections.

The sign from the former Sassy Sally's casino (now Mermaids) is impressive for its sheer scale, but the most interesting aspect of the Boneyard's exhibits is in the detail.

As Zeitzer points out while we examine an intricately twisted set of tubing that imitates a cactus, the neon tubes on these early signs were hand-wrought and represent many hours of skilled artisan labour. ''I would definitely say it's art,'' he says. ''If you've ever watched a video of what it took for them to do these signs … creating the bends. It took multiple takes in order to get it just perfect.''

To see so many signs small and large is to realise how widely neon was embraced. Beyond those of the big casinos, we spot plenty of neon signs from motels and restaurants. The oldest in the collection once adorned a 1930s roadside diner known as the Green Shack. It's a simple green-and-white structure bearing the words ''COCKTAILS - STEAK - CHICKEN''.

''The sign was the menu,'' Zeitzer says, shrugging.

I'm starting to sense what the aesthetic attraction of neon signs was all about. Obviously it fulfilled a practical function, of drawing attention to a business in the most dramatic way possible after dark. But the cheerful, sleek, colourful, other-worldly appearance of neon signs must have seemed a confirmation that the future had arrived, particularly to the postwar world for which war and economic depression were fresh memories.

Rounding a bend in the Boneyard, we enter the section devoted to The Strip, that stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard adorned with the most outlandish resorts and casinos. Here the signs grow even bigger. There's an immense metal lamp from the former Aladdin, and a vast pirate's skull from Treasure Island lying on its side, high enough for group members to shelter under.

Then, suddenly, there's the red-orange 1958 sign from the Stardust, towering above us in its retro-futuristic font, its thousands of lightbulb sockets now mostly empty. For decades, this sign was an icon of Vegas, its lettering contained within a neon ''cloud'' simulating stars and planets.

Conceived in a time of boundless prosperity, the Stardust was the epitome of space-age optimism in a city from which above-ground nuclear test explosions could be sighted in the 1950s.

The resort closed in 2006 and imploded in 2007, with the construction of its replacement stalled by the global financial crisis. The sign, however, still stands in the Boneyard, giving rise to my thoughts of Shelley.

As we reach the final piece in the tour, a bizarre neon duck that once graced the yard of Ugly Duckling Car Sales, I ask Zeitzer if it's important for Vegas to remember its history via this industrial art.

''It is,'' he says, firmly. ''If you don't learn from history, you're doomed to repeat it. People come through here all the time with fond memories and nostalgia, saying, 'Oh, I wish the stars [from the Stardust] were still here.' Maybe next time we'll think a little bit more before we tear something down.''

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Fiji Airways and Visit USA.

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