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The Welcome to Las Vegas sign is still fabulous at 60

The Welcome to Las Vegas sign is still fabulous at 60
After getting married in Las Vegas in 2008, Anton and Alina Deschner of Liederbach, Germany, kissed in front of the city’s iconic welcome sign to add to their wedding photos. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau)

Las Vegas welcomes more than 42 million visitors a year, and a good share of them make their way to the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign that’s turning 60 this month.

When it was created six decades ago, the sign featured a popular, midcentury Googie architectural style, a futuristic design that reflected the Space Age.

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Day and night, visitors flock to Las Vegas' welcome sign to pose for photos.
Day and night, visitors flock to Las Vegas' welcome sign to pose for photos. (Sam Morris / Las Vegas News Bureau)

Here are some details about the landmark: It’s not actually in the city of Las Vegas (it’s in an unincorporated area called Paradise), and it features seven silver dollars (behind the letters that form “welcome”), a nod to potential casino winnings.

The sign circa February 1960, a few months after its installation along what was then U.S. 91, the highway linking L.A. and Vegas.
The sign circa February 1960, a few months after its installation along what was then U.S. 91, the highway linking L.A. and Vegas. (Don English / Las Vegas News Bureau)

The sign, along Las Vegas Boulevard at the south end of the Strip, ranks among Southern Nevada’s most-visited sites. It’s the setting for countless selfies posted on Facebook and Instagram, and appears on a seemingly endless array of souvenirs, from coffee mugs to magnets to T-shirts.

Betty Willis, shown here in 2002, created the sign for a local sign company in 1959. She died in 2015.
Betty Willis, shown here in 2002, created the sign for a local sign company in 1959. She died in 2015. (Bob Brye / Las Vegas News Bureau)

The body of the sign was shaped to look like a hotel key fob typical of the era. It was designed by Betty Willis, who studied art in Los Angeles before going to work for a sign company called Western Electric Displays in Vegas.

“Most people are surprised when they find out a woman designed the sign,” Willis told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2005. “It was a man’s business back then. It wasn’t a woman’s field because when you work with neon signs, you have to not only design them, but you have to learn the nuts and bolts of how neon, light and electricity work. … Most women back then weren’t interested in such technical stuff.”

Neither Willis, who died four years ago, nor the sign company ever copyrighted the image, which means entrepreneurs are free to use it in any way they choose without paying royalties.

Two elephants and several performers from the former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus pose in front of the sign in 2012.
Two elephants and several performers from the former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus pose in front of the sign in 2012. (Darrin Bush / Las Vegas News Bureau)

The 25-foot-tall sign became such a pop culture fixture that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. “You want a picture with that,” said Mark Hall-Patton, head of the Clark County Museum. “That proves that you were here. That makes the statement, ‘I’m here. I made it to Las Vegas.’ ”

A woman, her luggage stacked atop her motor scooter, poses in front of the welcome sign in 1963.
A woman, her luggage stacked atop her motor scooter, poses in front of the welcome sign in 1963. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

The sign, now a beacon to the world, cost a mere $4,000 when commissioned by Clark County officials in May 1959.

More than six miles south of the Las Vegas city limits, the sign was out in the sticks when erected, near what was then the entrance to McCarran International Airport.

At the time, the road was known as U.S. 91, a the two-lane road called the “Los Angeles Highway” because it linked Southern California with Vegas.

With the explosion of growth along the Strip, resorts have moved closer and closer to the sign. To accommodate the ever-increasing number of tourists, the sign got its own parking lot — in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard — in 2008.

“Why do they want to have their photo taken there? It’s not just the sign,” Hall-Patton said. “It’s because it has the Strip behind it, because it is in the perfect location. … What everybody thinks of as Las Vegas is right there behind you.”

Over the decades, modern-day Las Vegas grew up around the sign, creating the perfect photo backdrop.
Over the decades, modern-day Las Vegas grew up around the sign, creating the perfect photo backdrop. (Glenn Pinkerton / Las Vegas News Bureau)
These days you're likely to have to wait your turn for a photo with the iconic Las Vegas landmark.
These days you're likely to have to wait your turn for a photo with the iconic Las Vegas landmark. (Mark Damon / Las Vegas News Bureau)

Free and open 24/7, the welcome sign is visited around-the-clock, as evidenced by a live webcam pointed at it. People can often be seen queueing up, waiting for their turn for pictures in front of the sign.

Beatle Ringo Starr, center left, was honored by Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, left, at the sign in 2015.
Beatle Ringo Starr, center left, was honored by Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, left, at the sign in 2015. (Mark Damon / Las Vegas News Bureau)

Over the decades, celebrities, from movie stars to musical performers to sports legends, have posed in front of the sign.

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“Jeopardy” champion James Holzhauer at the sign.
“Jeopardy” champion James Holzhauer at the sign. (Sam Morris / Las Vegas News Bureau)

Most recently, James Holzhauer, the professional gambler and reigning “Jeopardy” champion with winnings of more than $1.6 million, made an appearance at the sign May 2. Holzhauer lives in Vegas.

Light bulbs that once burned inside the welcome sign are now sold as souvenirs at 11 locations of the Welcome to Las Vegas Gift Shops.
Light bulbs that once burned inside the welcome sign are now sold as souvenirs at 11 locations of the Welcome to Las Vegas Gift Shops. (Marshall Retail Group)

At its 11 locations, the Welcome to Las Vegas Gift Shops are marking the anniversary with “60 & Still Lit!” commemorative merchandise.

A one-of-a-kind keepsake visitors can take home is a used lightbulb, significant because it comes with a dated certificate authenticating that it once helped illuminate the welcome sign. Set inside a custom package, the limited-edition souvenir costs $29.95.

And those lightbulbs are old-school. The sign’s lights have been solar-powered since 2014.

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