Be­hind that ‘Fab­u­lous’ sign

BETTY WIL­LIS, 1923 - 2015

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By David Colker david.colker@la­times.com

Betty Wil­lis, who de­signed the land­mark f lash­ing Las Ve­gas sign, has died.

You may not know Betty Wil­lis’ name, but she de­signed a world-fa­mous land­mark that’s so beloved, peo­ple get mar­ried un­der it. Some­times by Elvis.

Wil­lis cre­ated the flash­ing “Wel­come to Fab­u­lous Las Ve­gas” neon sign along In­ter­state 15 that has served as a gate­way to the city since 1959.

The sign, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places that listed it in 2009, “is the best-pre­served and in­deed the most iconic ex­pres­sion of the re­mark­able as­cen­dancy of post-War Las Ve­gas and its fa­mous Strip.”

Wil­lis, 91, who had lit­tle for­mal art train­ing but was known for giv­ing care­ful, de­tailed at­ten­tion to ev­ery as­pect of her signs, died Sun­day at the Las Ve­gas home of her daugh­ter, Mar­jorie Hol­land. She had been in de­clin­ing heath and died of nat­u­ral causes, Hol­land said.

In a city where ho­tels, lounge acts and ar­chi­tec­tural styles come and go, the Mid­cen­tury Mod­ern sign — with an ex­ag­ger­ated di­a­mond-shape that re­calls Goo­gie-style cof­fee shops of the era — has if any­thing, grown more popular in re­cent years. In 2008, Clark County spent $400,000 — about 100 times the orig­i­nal cost of the sign — to in­stall a nearby park­ing lot in the hope that tourists want­ing to get a close-up look would stop risk­ing their lives by run­ning across the high­way.

Tour buses pack the lot (ex­panded in 2012) daily, as vis­i­tors take self­ies and even get mar­ried there by a va­ri­ety of of­fi­ciants. Down the road in the city, the im­age lingers — it can be found in shops on ev­ery keep­sake imag­in­able, even un­der­wear.

“The sign has come to be as­so­ci­ated not just with Las Ve­gas,” said Danielle Kelly, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Neon Mu­seum in Las Ve­gas, “but with a kind of vin­tage glam­our of a dif­fer­ent time.”

The sign orig­i­nated from an ef­fort by a group of casino own­ers and civic lead­ers to erect a road­side “Wel­come” sign, as nu­mer­ous cities had done in the post­war era. But this was Las Ve­gas, so there could be noth­ing or­di­nary about it. Wil­lis was work­ing as a designer for West­ern Neon in Las Ve­gas, which got the com­mis­sion.

“We thought the town was fab­u­lous, so we added the word,” Wil­lis told the New York Times in 2005.

Each painted cap­i­tal let­ter in “Wel­come” across the top was out­lined in neon and backed by white cir­cles meant to de­pict sil­ver dol­lars. Around the perime­ter of the sign are yel­low bulbs that flash and move in a chas­ing se­quence.

“Ev­ery­thing you could f lash or spin, we did it,” Wil­lis said in the Times in­ter­view.

She was born May 20, 1923, in Over­ton, Nev., about 60 miles from Las Ve­gas. Her fa­ther, who was Clark County’s first as­ses­sor, moved the fam­ily to Las Ve­gas when she was about two weeks old.

Hol­land said her mother showed artis­tic tal­ent from a young age. “She cre­ated her own small news­pa­per, with a fash­ion sec­tion, when she was about 10,” Hol­land said. “All hand drawn and in color.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Las Ve­gas High School in 1941, she en­rolled in an art school in Los An­ge­les. She didn’t stay long be­fore tak­ing a job with a com­pany that de­signed ban­ners and other pro­mo­tional ma­te­ri­als for movie the­aters.

She re­turned to Las Ve­gas, where she worked as a legal sec­re­tary and got work drawing fash­ion ad­ver­tise­ments be­fore get­ting the job at West­ern Neon.

Among her other cre­ations was the sign for the fa­bled Moulin Rouge Ho­tel, the first in­te­grated casino in the city. Much of the build­ing was de­stroyed in a se­ries of fires, but the sign was saved and moved to the Neon Mu­seum in 2009.

A much-re­peated story that Wil­lis didn’t copy­right the de­sign of the wel­come sign so that it could be freely copied is ques­tion­able, to say the least, Kelly said. But the sign was nonethe­less hos­pitable.

Kelly pointed out that its back, which sel­dom gets pho­tographed by those leav­ing Las Ve­gas, sim­ply says, “Drive Care­fully.”

In ad­di­tion to her daugh­ter, Wil­lis is sur­vived by two grand­chil­dren and a great­grand­child.

Jae C. Hong As­so­ci­ated Press

WORLD-FA­MOUS LAND­MARK A cou­ple get mar­ried in 2007 by the “Wel­come to Fab­u­lous Las Ve­gas” sign. Its designer, Betty Wil­lis, had lit­tle for­mal art train­ing but was known for giv­ing care­ful, de­tailed at­ten­tion to ev­ery as­pect of her signs.

Las Ve­gas News Bureau Ar­chives/EPA

NE­VADA NA­TIVE “We thought the town

was fab­u­lous, so we added the word,” Wil­lis, shown in 2002, once said.

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