‘FABULOUS’ CITY-DEFINING
SIGN DESIGNER DIES AT 91

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Post by Mies Hora

Betty Willis’s 25-foot-high neon sign blazingly and irrevocably linked Las Vegas with fabulousness.

‘Destination branding’ is big in today’s competitive world, where countries, cities, villages, and tourist destinations all vie for attention and visitors. Very few signs created for that purpose reach the status that Willis’ sign did. In 2009, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the “best-preserved and indeed the most iconic expression of the remarkable ascendancy of postwar Las Vegas and its famous strip.”

What happens in Las Vegas typically doesn’t last for very long, but Mrs. Willis’s fluorescent sign proclaiming “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada,” designed by her and installed by Clark County, Nev., in 1959 in a $4,000 splurge of civic boosterism, became a beloved and surprisingly enduring symbol of the casino capital’s extravagance.

“We thought the town was fabulous, so we added the word,” Mrs. Willis said in a 2005 interview with The New York Times. “There was no other word to use.” The image was freely reproduced on souvenir tchotchkes ranging from snow globes to Las Vegas centennial license plates. She never copyrighted the logo or profited from the sign directly. “It’s my gift to the city,” she said, although she later acknowledged: “I should make a buck out of it. Everybody else is.”

Anchored in a median on Highway 91 (Las Vegas Boulevard South), which in 1959 was the only road from Los Angeles, the glittering welcome was characteristically overstated, since the city limits were still four miles away. But that didn’t deter tourists from risking their lives to pose under the sign or to get married with the kitschy logo stealing the spotlight. (Parking spaces were later added to the median.)

With typical hometown modesty, Danielle Kelly, executive director of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, called the sign “the most recognizable icon in the world.” Describing Mrs. Willis as a trailblazer in a field dominated by men, Ms. Kelly added: “To say her designs defined Las Vegas is an understatement; the Fabulous Las Vegas sign has become the heart we wear on our sleeve.”

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Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Betty attended art school in Los Angeles but quit to work in advertising. After moonlighting as a commercial artist drawing dancing girls for newspaper advertisements, she was hired by a sign company, Western Neon, where a salesman, Ted Rogich, figured booming Las Vegas needed a distinctive gateway greeting for visitors.
“We knew the sign would be recognizable because of the odd shape,” Mrs. Willis told The Times.

The diamond-shaped motif, derived from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company logo and designed in the exaggerated modern ‘Googie’ style – named for a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles – is bordered by flashing yellow incandescent bulbs. Welcome is spelled out in red letters within white neon circles that resemble silver dollars, which were meant to convey good luck to gamblers. (Nevada is “the Silver State.”) Crowning the sign is a red metal starburst outlined in yellow neon, which Mrs. Willis said was inspired by Disneyland’s symbol. “I added a Disney star for happiness,” she said. The other side of the sign, which is maintained by the Young Electric Sign Company for the county, says: “Drive Carefully. Come Back Soon.”

Mrs. Willis also designed signs for the Moulin Rouge (above), the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas, and a revolving buxom seraph for the Blue Angel Motel (below). She died on April 19, 2015 at her home in Overton, Nev. She was 91.

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Blue Angel Motel Photo: Bryan McCormick

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SIGN DESIGNER DIES AT 91

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