Betty Willis dies at 91; designed Las Vegas' landmark welcome sign

Betty Willis, who designed the landmark 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas' sign on Interstate 15, dies at age 91

You may not know Betty Willis' name, but she designed a world-famous landmark that's so beloved, people get married under it. Sometimes by Elvis.

Willis created the flashing "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" neon sign along Interstate 15 that has served as a gateway to the city since 1959.

The sign, according to the National Register of Historic Places that listed it in 2009, "is the best-preserved and indeed the most iconic expression of the remarkable ascendancy of post-War Las Vegas and its famous Strip."

Willis, 91, who had little formal art training but was known for giving careful, detailed attention to every aspect of her signs, died Sunday at the Las Vegas home of her daughter, Marjorie Holland. She had been in declining heath and died of natural causes, Holland said.

In a city where hotels, lounge acts and architectural styles come and go, the Midcentury Modern sign — with an exaggerated diamond-shape that recalls Googie-style coffee shops of the era — has if anything, grown more popular in recent years. In 2008, Clark County spent $400,000 — about 100 times the original cost of the sign — to install a nearby parking lot in the hope that tourists wanting to get a close-up look would stop risking their lives by running across the highway.

Tour buses pack the lot (expanded in 2012) daily, as visitors take selfies and even get married there by a variety of officiants. Down the road in the city, the image lingers — it can be found in shops on every keepsake imaginable, even underwear.

"The sign has come to be associated not just with Las Vegas," said Danielle Kelly, executive director of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, "but with a kind of vintage glamour of a different time."

The sign originated from an effort by a group of casino owners and civic leaders to erect a roadside "Welcome" sign, as numerous cities had done in the postwar era. But this was Las Vegas, so there could be nothing ordinary about it. Willis was working as a designer for Western Neon in Las Vegas, which got the commission.

"We thought the town was fabulous, so we added the word," Willis told the New York Times in 2005.

Each painted capital letter in "Welcome" across the top was outlined in neon and backed by white circles meant to depict silver dollars. Around the perimeter of the sign are yellow bulbs that flash and move in a chasing sequence.

"Everything you could flash or spin, we did it," Willis said in the Times interview.

She was born May 20, 1923, in Overton, Nev., about 60 miles from Las Vegas. Her father, who was Clark County's first assessor, moved the family to Las Vegas when she was about two weeks old.

Holland said her mother showed artistic talent from a young age. "She created her own small newspaper, with a fashion section, when she was about 10," Holland said. "All hand drawn and in color."

After graduating from Las Vegas High School in 1941, she enrolled in an art school in Los Angeles. She didn't stay long before taking a job with a company that designed banners and other promotional materials for movie theaters.

She returned to Las Vegas, where she worked as a legal secretary and got work drawing fashion advertisements before getting the job at Western Neon.

Among her other creations was the sign for the fabled Moulin Rouge Hotel, the first integrated casino in the city. Much of the building was destroyed in a series of fires, but the sign was saved and moved to the Neon Museum in 2009.

A much-repeated story that Willis didn't copyright the design of the welcome sign so that it could be freely copied is questionable, to say the least, Kelly said. But the sign was nonetheless hospitable.

Kelly pointed out that its back, which seldom gets photographed by those leaving Las Vegas, simply says, "Drive Carefully."

In addition to her daughter, Willis is survived by two grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Twitter: @davidcolker

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
71°