2015: Las Vegas

The Neon & Mob Museums

March 24

 Old La Concha motel, now the Neon Museum lobby.

Zelda had recommended a couple of local attractions, the Neon Museum Boneyard and the Mob Museum; so we took a day to check them out. The Neon Museum is a nonprofit that was formed in 1996 to rescue and restore old Vegas neon signs. They have restored a few to full working condition and installed them around the downtown area; the rest are lying around in a "boneyard" waiting for their fate. You can only see them on a one-hour guided tour.

As sometimes happens in these places, we got a truly terrible guide for the tour. She made a common mistake, taking her voice to dog-whistle trebles and over-inflecting to make her spiel more interesting; it just made it interminable. Her continual nagging didn't help, either. The aisles are tight so it's impossible to get uncluttered photographs without waiting for other people to get out of the way. But if I fell more than 20 feet behind, she would admonish the group to "stay together". Another lagging photographer turned to me once, rolled his eyes, and said, "She's not the boss of me." Not for lack of trying!

Silver Slipper. Composite sign.

The old signs are interesting, and I admire what they're trying to do. The boneyard acquired and restored the lobby building of the old La Concha Motel, built in 1961 and demolished in 2003, to be their check-in and gift shop. The sign outside the museum is composed of letters using typography from multiple historic sources: "N" from the Golden Nugget, "e" from Caesar's Palace, another "n" from the Desert Inn. They've restored the famous Silver Slipper sign across the street from the museum. And they have certain signs in the boneyard partially restored so they can be lighted at night for the evening tours.

My first trip to Las Vegas was in summer of 1969, when many of these signs were flashing and glittering in their original homes, so it was a bit creepy to see them now rusting away. Just like me, I guess. Everything represented by these signs -- hotels, motels, even performers -- is now long gone, and I outlived them, watching them be demolished and replaced by endless mega-hotels crammed into what once was endless desert.

Waiting to start. All lined up. La Concha Motel and other signs. Frontier Hotel. Tropicana.
Moulin Rouge. Sahara. Algiers. Stardust. Liberace sign.
Treasure Island pirate. Golden Nugget. Lido de Paris. Giant pool player.
Museum guide.

The Mob Museum is a history lesson in the connections between organized crime and Las Vegas casinos. Many of the displays are just text placards describing events and characters in the long rise and fall of mob racketeering. Prohibition figures prominently, as any fan of Boardwalk Empire would know. The Museum is housed in the former federal courthouse where one of the Senate hearings on organized crime was held in 1950. The courtroom which was the hearing location has been fully restored and shows a nine-minute film about how Senator Estes Kefauver's special committee took on the mob.

A few of the items are unexpected, like the original St. Valentine's Day Massacre brick wall, preserved intact with the bullet holes circled in red. As a political junkie, I got a kick out of a photo of a very young Harry Reid as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1977.