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Betty Willis, designer of iconic Las Vegas sign, dies

The welcoming sign to Las Vegas sits on the Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada. |acob Kepler/Bloomberg News

EDITOR’S NOTE: Betty Willis, the woman who designed the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, died Sunday. She was 91. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority called Willis “a visionary who created one of the most iconic and most photographed landmarks in our great city. The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign will be a lasting legacy to a pioneer who gave not only Las Vegas, but several businesses, their identity.”

What follows is a March 13, 2005 interview I did with Ms. Willis for the Sun-Times Sunday Travel section, in which she talked about her career as an artist and the singular work that would become her most celebrated accomplishment.

BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO | SUN-TIMES STAFF REPORTER

LAS VEGAS — There it is. Just glistening in the afternoon sun. And come nightfall, she’s aglow in glorious shades of red, white, blue and yellow. Since 1959, it’s the first thing you see when you arrive, and the last thing you see before you head out of town. “It” is the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas ” sign that sits amid a concrete island along the southernmost outskirts of the Las Vegas Strip, along what was once the lone highway between Vegas and Los Angeles. At one time, the only things closest to it were the sand and rocks of the desert, which made it all the more majestic. Nowadays, as the gigantic resorts of the Strip encroach, the tiny “little sign that could” is the one image that stays with you long after you depart, richer or poorer. While Las Vegas is celebrating its 100th birthday in May, this tiny jewel of the desert (it stands a mere 25 feet) is celebrating 46 years of welcome duties.

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this sign’s a beauty. The creator of this world-renowned image is a beauty herself, the 81-years-young Betty Willis, a lifelong Las Vegan and commercial artist who designed and helped build the landmark in 1959 when she worked at a tiny company called Western Neon. Yes, a woman designed the sign.

“The purpose of the sign was to bring the tourists back to Las Vegas,” Willis says during a series of e-mail and phone interviews. “I never copyrighted the design because I felt that if it were copyrighted, people would not feel free to use it [on everything from T-shirts to luggage tags to bar ware and clocks] and its purpose would be diminished. [Laughs] Sometimes I do wish I was getting royalties.”

Willis’ love affair with Las Vegas was born in her. Her parents came to the dusty desert town in 1905 via horse and wagon along a mighty dirt road. Her father was the county’s first assessor, her sister’s husband a U.S. senator. The twice-divorced grandmother retired four years ago and works part-time at her daughter’s silk screen company. She says she lives for the smell, the feel, the beauty of the desert, and the sign was born of that love.

Betty Willis and the sign she designed. | FILE PHOTO
Betty Willis and the sign she designed. | FILE PHOTO

“I love the desert and I have a lot of pride in Las Vegas,” Willis says, beaming. “At the time we were working on the sign, it only said ‘Welcome to Las Vegas,’ ” she continues. “But we all thought the town was fabulous, so we added the [fabulous].”

She began her career as an artist in the 1940s designing newspaper ads for Las Vegas shows and graduated to neon by the time the 1950s rolled around, starting with motel signs. Her first major project was the neon sign for the Moulin Rouge casino, the first interracial casino in Las Vegas. (That casino was soon closed and eventually burned down in the early 1990s, but Willis’ sign survived.) Her “Welcome” sign was sold to the county in 1959 for $4,000. At the time, the sign was seen as nothing more than “one of those signs along the highways that told you what town you were now entering. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would become as famous as it has,” Willis says.

“Most people are surprised when they find out a woman designed the sign,” Willis continues. “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. You have to learn about pressure points and weight and wattage of lamps. You work with engineers as well as artists. Most women back then weren’t interested in such technical stuff.”

As for the mechanical particulars, the somewhat triangular sign, the shape chosen expressly because it was a highly uncommon shape for neon signs, sports seven silver dollars (the official trademark of Nevada, Willis says) encapsulating the word “welcome.” A glistening red star shines brightly atop its highest post. It’s all complemented by a sea of white and yellow neon. The words ” Las Vegas ” explode in a burst of red neon.

“If you are designing a sign utilizing neon, you try to convey the atmosphere of your customer’s business with specific color and style,” Willis explains. “If the sign is going to be on a highway with a long, clear approach, red neon is the most legible because it does not halo as much as the other colors.”

And while many of Las Vegas ‘ earliest hotel signs are long gone, this “little sign that could,” as Willis lovingly refers to it, has survived. It has achieved its own celebrity status in a town with celebrity in its veins.

“I don’t believe there is a ‘greatest neon sign ever’ in Las Vegas,” Willis says. “I don’t even think this sign is the greatest one ever. I think the lettering could have been better. But it’s become a beloved icon to the city. It’s a good feeling to know that you created something that did what it was intended to do, made something that would be recognized and remembered. I do take pride that the sign in the end worked out quite nicely for Las Vegas.”