Neon on Main Street

Club Cal-Neva marquee
Club Cal-Neva marquee

Neon ebbs and flows in popularity, but not so much in Nevada. Nevada does neon differently than everywhere else in the country; it’s not a fad, and in many ways it defines the state. When neon started to dim in the late '50s and early '60s it was as if Nevada didn’t get the message. Nevada’s neon signs started getting bigger and bolder, more elaborate, particularly in Las Vegas and Reno. The state embraced the art form and ran with it. Casinos were trying to outshine their competition by building bigger, showier signs. Suddenly these main streets were cacophonies of neon light. Las Vegas and Reno became the cities that never sleep, playgrounds for merrymaking and debauchery. People could stay up all hours of the night drinking and gambling in the neon lit streets.

The most iconic neon avenues in Nevada are, of course, the Strip and Fremont Street in Las Vegas, and Virginia Street in Reno. Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, and the first major hotel-casino resorts in Nevada were Harrah’s in Reno in 1937 between South Virginia and Center Streets, and El Rancho Vegas on the Las Vegas Strip in 1941.

The third resort on the Strip, and oldest still in operation, was the Flamingo (1946), which has a neon marquee sign with the name of the casino above a brilliant display of feathers and flames. Also on the property are the famous neon flamingos that line the building. Also on the Strip was the Riviera, which operated from 1955 to 2015 and boasted an enormous neon facade sign that had an “R” 17 feet tall. The Riviera sign was saved by Will Durham, director of the Nevada Neon Project, before the resort’s demolition. Stardust Resort and Casino opened in 1956, and its neon sign was put up in 1958 and was 216 feet long and 37 feet high with 7,100 feet of neon tubing. “Stardust” is spelled out in a jagged, futuristic typeface reminiscent of spaceships that was designed by Kermit Wayne just for the Stardust brand. The sign is replete with stars shooting out in every direction, lighting up the Strip. Reportedly this blazing sign was visible from over three miles away. Circus Circus has one of the most popular neon signs in Vegas, a 123-foot tall clown named Lucky, created by YESCO in 1976. Lucky is one of the last remaining neon signs that is in working condition on the Strip today.

Flamingo Hotel During the Day
Exterior view of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, NV during the day.

The other main thoroughfare in Las Vegas, Fremont Street, was the first paved street. Casinos, bars, hotels, motels, and other businesses on Fremont all had neon. Downtown Las Vegas earned the nickname “Glitter Gulch” because of the abundance of neon. The Golden Nugget, the Pioneer Club, Fremont Hotel and Casino, the Mint, Four Queens, and many others dazzled with neon along this street. The Pioneer Club had its giant cowboy mascot, Vegas Vic, greeting tourists from the sky--he still does even though the Pioneer Club is no longer. The most famous neon sign in Las Vegas is perhaps the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign located on Las Vegas Boulevard at the southern end of the Strip, created in 1959 by Western Neon. Today, much of the neon that once blurred the lines between night and day in Las Vegas is no longer in use. The impact, however, is lasting and the preservation and remembrance of these signs is important to the historical narrative of the city and Nevada at large.

In Reno, Virginia Street is the aorta that flows through the heart of the city. The Reno Arch is of course the most famous neon sign in Reno and proudly hangs over South Virginia Street downtown, signaling to tourists and locals alike that they are in fact in the Biggest Little City in the World. The arch that stands currently is actually the third arch to occupy that space. The first was built in 1926 and was originally only a temporary commemoration of the completion of the Lincoln and Victory Highways in 1926, but it was so popular it was kept up and in 1934 the city’s slogan “the Biggest Little City in the World” was added. The original arch was moved to Lake Street, where it still stands, and a second arch took its place in 1964, which was not constructed of neon at all but backlit plastic, reflecting the decline in neon’s popularity of that time. The third arch marked a comeback of neon and was built in 1987 with red and gold neon lettering. This is the arch we still see today. In 2018, there was some traction to swap out the neon for silver and blue LED lights, but that effort was squashed and the neon was saved, though other parts of the arch have been converted to silver and blue to match the city’s changing aesthetics.

Nighttime view of The Strip in Las Vegas
Nighttime view of The Strip, Las Vegas, NV

Many of the most popular casinos and clubs in Reno were on or near Virginia Street, including the first major hotel-casino. Harrah’s was built between Virginia and Center Streets in 1937. Harold’s Club, only a casino not a hotel, opened in 1935 and was demolished in 1999. The Nevada Club opened in 1946 with its famous Bucky Buckaroo, a Nevada-shaped neon cowboy. The Hilton Hotel Casino and its “Pot O’ Gold Jackpots” neon sign stood proudly in front of the Horseshoe Club’s facade. The 1970s saw the opening of the Sands, Peppermill, Atlantis, Sundowner, and Circus Circus casinos, each sporting their own neon digs. Other notable neon signs along Virginia belonged to the Fitzgerald’s Club, Cal-Neva, and the Eldorado. Apart from casinos there were also many bars, hotels, motels, and other businesses that advertised with neon. Although Reno is much smaller than Vegas it boasted a similar explosion of neon light and air of excitement. Currently, there are considerably fewer neon signs in downtown Reno than there once were, particularly as several casinos, such as Harrah's and Siena, have been converted to alternative use. However, a fair number remain, such as the Eldorado, Circus Circus, and the Sands.

Neither Las Vegas nor Reno is decked out in neon in the same way it once was, but neon remains a defining element of Nevada’s biggest cities. Nevada is a state that has had to reinvent itself a lot economically in order to survive, and so change happens quite rapidly. In many ways, neon is an artifact of Nevada’s flashier days, and its preservation is essential to the state’s history. Las Vegas and Reno histories are written in neon and in preserving the images of signs, Neon in Nevada ensures that these precious stories will remain to be told.