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Where to find the classic hotel signs

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LAS VEGAS — Neon is loud, garish and hard to miss. 

But if you look for it on the famed Las Vegas Strip, good luck. The wild colors and pointers to get you in the door for “free drinks” and “floor shows” have all but disappeared from Las Vegas Boulevard, save for the pink marquee of the Flamingo, the casino formed in 1944 by mobster Bugsy Siegel and still thriving today. 

You won’t see classic neon at the newer establishments like the Aria, Cosmopolitan, Bellagio, Paris or Venetian. 

But have no fear: Neon is still alive and well, if you know where to look. 

Join us on a photo tour in search of classic neon in Downtown Las Vegas, where the Neon Museum lovingly houses and showcases the art form, and busy Fremont Street, where old-line casinos like Binion’s Gambling Hall and the Four Queens still run their yellow and red signs all night long. 

Dawn Merritt, the chief marketing officer for the Neon Museum, says many resorts on the Strip have moved to LED lighting “because it’s more economical,” but she insists neon in Vegas “is never going away. The neon glow really speaks to people.”

The Fremont Street Experience, in the heart of downtown, brings the art of neon to new heights with an enclosed pedestrian mall that features an hourly evening light show above the neon signs. 

Other neon-friendly attractions include Lyft Park, where the ride-hailing firm welcomes riders to wait for cars among neon pieces, and the Atomic Liquors store, the oldest free-standing bar in Las Vegas, whose 1951-era sign still shines. 

At the Neon Museum, signs for defunct casinos like the Stardust and Riviera share space in the “Boneyard” with rejected signs from Binion’s and the Golden Nugget that have been replaced with more modern examples. 

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George Claude is credited with inventing neon itself in 19th-century Paris. Neon came to Las Vegas in the 1940s when Ogden, Utah, sign maker Thomas Young, who had met with Claude in Paris, came south to Vegas looking to expand his business. The first sign by the Young Electric Sign Co. was for the Boulder Club in 1944. YESCO has gone on to create many classic Vegas neon signs over the years.

Resorts and YESCO lend the neon masterpieces to the museum for display. 

The museum, which says its mission is to collect, preserve and exhibit classic neon, is in the process of restoring the classic Gibson guitar-shaped sign for the Hard Rock Cafe, which closed in 2016. (The hotel itself is set to close at the end of 2019, and be remodeled and rebranded in 2020 as a Virgin Hotel.) 

On Jan. 28, the museum will begin installing the huge Hard Rock guitar, a process expected to take several weeks. Some $200,000 has been raised by neon fans to help restore the sign. 

The museum itself lives in the old front lobby of the La Concha Motel, which opened in 1961 and closed in 2006 — before being moved to the museum’s home at 770 North Las Vegas Boulevard. 

USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham is the author of the long out-of-print “Vegas: Live and In Person.”

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