In September 1928, Overland Hotel owner Ethel Guenter switched on her new “neon gas-electric sign” and gave Las Vegas its signature art form and identifier. Another woman, Betty Willis, designed the landmark 1959 ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign, which along with Flamingo’s 1968 plume, updated in 1975, and Lucky the Clown at Circus Circus (1976) are the Strip’s sole yesteryear survivors. The old guard lives on though at Downtown’s Neon Museum (www.neonmuseum.org), where still-electrified retirees include the martini-glass beauty from late ’60’s gay bar Red Barn. Digital artist Craig Winslow’s reanimation of classic inoperable signs, choreographed to classic Vegas tunes, is truly “Brilliant!”
Heirlooms dotting the Downtown landscape include The Silver Slipper; Hacienda Hotel’s Caballero on a Palomino; and Willis’s recently restored 1957 Blue Angel Motel sign (also look for the “Phalanx of Angels Descending” mural inspired by the 16-foot tall icon).
At historic Fremont and Main, developer Derek Stephens owns Vegas’s original hotel, the Golden Gate (1906), and its latest, Circa Las Vegas (www.circalasvegas.com). Where the Overland once stood, this sleek adults-only tower features a tiered outdoor pool amphitheater and Vegas Vickie in the lobby, while her 40-foot tall pal Vegas Vic still stands sentinel at the nearby Pioneer Club.
The city of Las Vegas’ downtown improvement project, Project Enchilada, is returning vintage motel signs to East Fremont, where the 1941 El Cortez (www.elcortezhotelcasino.com) is Vegas’ oldest continuously operating casino. Adorned with classic signage, this time capsule features a vintage barbershop, a floor of original guestrooms, and $5 margaritas all day, every day.
Bugsy Siegel, who had a stake in the El Cortez before founding the Flamingo, is featured at Downtown’s National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, or Mob Museum (www.themobmuseum.org). Housed in Vegas’ original 1933 U.S. Courthouse and Post Office, arresting draws include the courtroom where the nationally televised Kefauver hearings on Mafia involvement in Vegas were held in 1950. Visit the website for the weekly password to access the basement-level Speakeasy Bar.
Dating to early showgirls and the first topless Minsky shows in 1957 at The Dunes, burlesque and other risqué entertainment are also Vegas signatures. “Less so these days after Jubilee! closed (in 2016 , after 35 years at the Tropicana),” said international headliner and model Raquel Reed, who stars in the smash adult hit Absinthe at Caesars Palace. “But a solid handful of us keep it going here.”
Guardians include Dustin Wax, executive director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame (www.burlesquehall.com). Featuring informative panels and vintage ephemera, this pioneering Arts District museum was originated by late tassel-twirling legend Jennie Lee. Wax and his team promote this historic art form through community events and the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. Reigning burlesque queens Dita Von Teese and Dirty Martini are board members.