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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

Betty Willis (1924-2018)

Betty Willis in front of the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign. Courtesy: Jeff Scheid, Las Vegas Review

Las Vegas is famous for its creative and distinctive flashing lighted signs. Once significantly taller than the buildings they advertise, the signs of Las Vegas use millions of light bulbs and 15,000 miles of tubing, enough to span the United States five times from coast-to-coast. Indeed, the glow of the city is so powerful it is visible from space.

Fickle Tastes, Shortlived Signs
In a place where relics of the past are constantly updated, torn down and blown up, the signs of Las Vegas generally do not exist for very long. The city and the tastes of its residents move on and signs that look dated are replaced with newer, flashier designs. Nostalgic favorites such as the Hacienda Horse and Rider and the original sign for the Stardust have now been torn down. In 1996, the Las Vegas Neon Museum was opened to house these discarded signs. A three-acre lot known as "The Boneyard" serves as a final resting place for hundreds of signs that once lit up Vegas' Glitter Gulch.

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
Some signs, however, have managed to stand the test of time. One sign in particular has come to be seen as an icon of Las Vegas. The "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign has remained in its place on the Strip since 1959; it was created by one of Las Vegas' pioneer commercial artists, a woman by the name of Betty Willis.

Early Years
The youngest of eight children, Betty Willis was born in 1924. Arriving in a horse-drawn wagon, Willis' parents were among the first adventurous souls who journeyed to Las Vegas in 1905, the year William Clark's land auctions created the town. Willis' father, Stephen Whitehead, was employed as Clark County's first assessor.

Having a passion for design, Betty Willis attended art school in Los Angeles before returning to Las Vegas to work as a commercial artist. She began her career drawing showgirls in newspaper advertisements for various Vegas acts but eventually made the transition to designing neon signs.

Woman in a Man's World
At the time female commercial artists were few and far between. As Willis told the Chicago Sun Times, "Most people are surprised when they find out a woman designed the sign. 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." Among her designs was the sign for the Moulin Rouge.

Her Signature Piece
In 1952 Willis was approached by Ted Rogich, a local salesman, who suggested that she design a sign that would welcome visitors to the city. Las Vegas had a sign heralding everything, he argued, except itself. The sign had to reflect the relatively new, flashy neon age and serve as an impressive gateway for the town.

Willis agreed with Rogich, and embarked on developing a sign that was unique in its shape, style and content. Although the sign, at 25 feet tall, is short compared to other signs on the Strip, it does have some distinctive features. The diamond shape immediately differentiates it from the others. In a nod to Nevada's nickname as "the Silver State," seven silver dollars back the seven letters of the word "Welcome."

In 1959, when the sign was completed, Willis and Rogich sold it for $4,000 to Clark County officials, who placed the sign on an island on the southern tip of the Strip, where it remains to this day.

An Icon
In hopes that the design would be used freely, Willis never copyrighted her sign's design. Today, clothing, food, and various souvenirs are just some of the many items that bear the likeness of Willis' design. The "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign has become so iconic of Las Vegas that the sign was chosen as the official logo for Las Vegas' centennial celebration.

Willis continued to design signs until retiring at the age of 77, but her most famous design remains "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas." The sign has now become a destination in its own right and is seen as an iconic symbol of Las Vegas to tourists and Las Vegans alike.

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