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Signs of the Times

Culturati Make Way for a New Fabulous Las Vegas Sign

Stacy Willis

A young couple is dodging oncoming cars on southbound Las Vegas Boulevard, trying to get to the sign. They are holding hands, which makes the running a bit awkward. They're laughing. Her long brunette hair is blowing in her face. His flip-flops give him problems. A semi roars by in the next lane, leaving a cloud of dust and exhaust. When they get to the median—somewhat miraculously—she throws both fists in the air in victory and poses at the base of the sign. He stands back and takes the snapshot: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.


Across town in a community center, 11 artists, or art aficionados, are crammed into a tiny conference room around a big table. They're sipping bottled water and adhering to Roger's Rules—yea-ing and nay-ing and motioning and seconding, talking about the budget and upcoming city council meetings. They are the City of Las Vegas Art Commission, and they're busy with the business of constructing an arts culture. The room is 90 percent table and the agenda is mammoth—they've got to discuss Fremont's light show and picnic tables for Circle Park, an obelisk for the west side and new committee chairmen.


When the meeting is over, Commissioner Joshua Abbey meets me in the community center. Abbey, son of environmental activist and writer Edward Abbey, tells me about his recent write-up in the LA Times for the Yucca Mountain warning sign project, and how he's started this new project: an international contest to design a new Las Vegas sign. Inspired by the old Las Vegas sign. Betty Willis' sign. Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas. Drive Carefully. Come back soon!


We're standing amidst a crowd of seniors who are decked out in formal attire and attending some sort of dance. Abbey tells me Willis' sign was appropriate for its day—1956—but that a new sign might better reflect Vegas today. "The [old] sign is derivative of the mushroom cloud ... I think [the contest] is kind of important to help crystallize the essence of what Las Vegas represents in a contemporary context." Tom Jones is whoa-whoa-whoaing from the speakers. What's new, Pussycat? Old couples in shiny shoes fox-trot around us. We move outside.


"It's not to replace her sign," Abbey says. "No one wants to take her sign down. It's purely an exercise in design."


But Betty Willis sounds pissed off. I call her later at her house near Blue Diamond Road and Decatur. She's an 80-year-old Vegas native—she remembers when Sahara was "a mud road." We talk about her sign—which she never copyrighted nor earned a dime from—and about the contest, and about Vegas' growth generally. She's not happy about the latter two.


"I do feel strongly about it, and against it," she says of Abbey's sign contest. "That [original] sign has been a good, hard worker for years. I don't want it put in a museum somewhere. I think he should leave the sign out entirely …


"I think a contest to encourage aspiring artists in any way is good, and the subject matter to represent Las Vegas is good. But I didn't feel Joshua should use the sign as a platform.


"To me there's an ideal platform for his contest; there's the 2005 Las Vegas centennial. Instead, he chooses to use the little sign as a platform, which essentially puts it down. Why does he have to use the little sign as a springboard in a manner that puts it down and degrades it?"


The Arts Commission is one of the sponsors of the contest, along with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Las Vegas Hospitality Association, the Las Vegas Neon Museum and the Las Vegas Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Artists. Finalists will be included in an exhibition at the Downtown Contemporary Arts Collective in May of 2004; the winner gets $1,000.


On Abbey's website (desertspace.org) under a big picture of Betty's Fabulous sign, the call for entries says, "The objective of the competition is to generate design concepts for an innovative 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign for the 21st century. Las Vegas has a reputation of imploding its history to make room for the new. Set in the framework of the upcoming centennial anniversary of the City of Las Vegas, this competition will preserve our heritage and transform our future.


"The competition is intended to acknowledge the historical significance of the original 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign' designed by Betty Willis, while encouraging a new generation of designers and artists to use their creativity to stimulate the public's perception of Las Vegas. The sign designs should exemplify the identity of Las Vegas and present an open invitation for all to share in the city's popular culture."


Willis created her sign while working for Western Neon sign company. Salesman Ted Rogich, father of spinmeister Sig Rogich, sold it to the county. "We put every kind of chasing lamps and flashing neon on it—tried to put some excitement in it," she says. "We just came up with what we felt would last. I think of it as 'The Little Sign That Could.' It left home and got a life of its own …"


About the city that grew up around it, she says, "In the last five years or so, it's not Vegas anymore. It's no pleasure to drive anymore. There are accidents everywhere. It's getting too crowded and the town is not able to keep up with it—our services, our water. Growth is good, but we've just exploded."


Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas. Drive Carefully. Come back soon!

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