A sad day for Las Vegas neon lovers everywhere

The bad news came twice this afternoon in two separate announcements from the - first neon designer and friend of Classic Las Vegas, Brian "Buzz" Leming had died. Not long after that announcement, the Museum posted the news that Buzz's one-time mentor and friend, fellow neon designer, Betty Willis had also passed away.

Betty Willis is, of course, well-known as the designer of as she called it, "the little sign that could", the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign.

The Fabulous Las Vegas sign in December, 2008

The Fabulous Las Vegas sign in December, 2008

Betty also designed a number of signs including the Blue Angel Motel sign (which she said she patterned after the Blue Angel in Walt Disney's classic animated film, Pinocchio, though she took pride in the fact that her version was much bustier), the Moulin Rouge (which the Neon Museum was able to save after a fire destroyed the building), the Normandie Motel, the Del Mar and others. But it was her little sign that welcomed auto bound travelers from Southern California to Las Vegas that everyone remembers most.

Betty was a native Nevadan who was born in Clark County in 1924 while Buzz grew up in Henderson after his parents moved to town when he was five.

Buzz loved growing up in Henderson and recounted stories of long summer days when he and his dog (with his bb rifle) would go out in the desert around the family home and spend all day outside. He was a fireman when he got the idea that he wanted to be a neon designer. When he was 22 years old, heanswered an ad for part-time work because he liked to draw. To his surprise, he was hired.  He mentored under Betty Willis for awhile when they both worked at Western Sign. Soon after he was hired by Young Electric Sign and he worked with Jack Larsen, Herman Boernge, Kermit Wayne and Ben Mitchum. He worked with them on the original sign for Caesars Palace and loved to tell the story of the group going to Wonderworld one afternoon and finding Roman centenarians among the toy army soldiers in the kids department. They added the centenarians to their mock-up of the Caesars sign before showing it to Caesars owner, Jay Sarno. Sarno loved the idea and incorporated the Roman centenarians as statues under the sign. The group also worked on the original Aladddin sign and affectionately called it the "ice cream chair".

"We built a model.  A great, huge model.  The model was about six feet tall.  We rented some black light fixtures and we made a big drape drawstring that goes all the way around the model.  It was quite a production.  The architect at the time kept wanting to see it and we said no, let's wait for Milton Prell to get here.  He said "no, I make the decisions here let's take a look at it."  So we showed it to him and he said "God, I hate it. That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life."
 
“So, we shut the drawstring and waited for Milton Prell.  Well, Prell came in and the architect said "This isn't what you want."  And Milton said "No, I want to see it. Let me take a look at it."  So we opened the drawstrings and he said "Oh my God, where do I sign?"  And the architect says "You know Milton, I knew you'd love it."  (Interview with Brian Leming, 2003).

The sign cost $750,000 to design and fabricate but it was a thing of beauty.  Alan Hess wrote, "Yesco's sign was a free-form phantasm incorporating hints of jewelry, veils, magic lamps and fantasy." (Alan Hess, Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture)

Buzz went on to design a host of signs on his own across the Las Vegas Strip but perhaps the sign he was most fond of was one of the first he designed for a small shopping center, the Lawless Center,  in North town at the beginning of his career.  He as proud of that little sign and even prouder of the fact that sixty years on, the owner still maintained it and kept it lit.

Buzz Lemings "Sputnik" sign at the Lawless Center

Buzz Lemings "Sputnik" sign at the Lawless Center

It's ironic that Betty and Buzz, who had done so much to add to the neon skies of Las Vegas, would die over the same weekend. They were colleagues and they were friends. 

And their contributions to the skyline of Las Vegas should never be forgotten.

Rest in peace, Buzz Leming and Betty Willis.


The Story of Classic Las Vegas Screening in May!

  LAS VEGAS STORIES

 

Join us for this monthly series that examines the history of Las Vegas,  the people, places and things that make Vegas our home.

The Story of Classic Las Vegas

Thursday, May 7 at 7 p.m.

This documentary chronicles the history of Las Vegas beginning in the early 1900s and follows it through its perilous struggle to survive, using first-person narrative from the men and women who helped shape Las Vegas into its legendary status.

Producer Lynn Zook will be on hand to introduce the film and participate in a Q&A session following the screening.

Clark County Library

1401 E. Flamingo Rd.

For more information, please call 702.507.3458.

Free and open to the public. 

We hope to see you there!

A Closing Date for the Riviera

The LVCVA has announced the Riviera will officially close on May 4th, 2015 and will be demolished soon afterwards to make room for more convention facilities.

 

The Riviera marquee

 

Darlene Angela Dalmaceda  who hosts the The Golden Age of Las Vegas-Vintage Hotels, Casinos, Headliners & History on Facebook is hosting a farewell party for this grande dame of the original Las Vegas Strip:

Saturday, March 21 at 10:00am at the Riviera.

We hope you will stop by, say hello to Darlene and raise a glass as this original lady won't be around much longer to celebrate with.


The Riviera is going away for good.

Sixty years ago, when the Riviera debuted on the famed Las Vegas Strip, she was the cutting edge of modern technology. Nine stories tall, the first high-rise on the Strip and a mid-century lovers dream come true. She opened on April 20, 1955 with 291 rooms,  a pylon sign that "skewered the thin porte-cochere like a toothpick through a cheese canape" according to our friend Alan Hess and a second V-shaped marquee sign at the roadside entrance to the hotel.

Riv model
The Riv marquee

 

The Treniers opened the Starlight Lounge. The lounge, just off the lobby, had a 150-foot free-form stage bar and the lighting fixtures were brass in a starburst design against a teal blue sky canopy.

The Treniers

The Treniers

Liberace and his brother George opened the main showroom with Academy Award winning actress Joan Crawford as the official hostess for the opening. She reportedly received $10,000 for four days of greeting people.

The Clover Room where Liberace performed held seating for 532 people for the dinner show and 700 for the late show. At 10,000 square feet, it was the largest showroom on the Strip.

There were stumbles almost from the beginning. The hotel, run by Miami oriented operators unaccustomed to gambling watched as the hotel slid towards bankruptcy shortly after opening. They quickly hired Gus Greenbaum, Davey Berman, Ben Goffstein and Ross Miller to take over the day to day operations. A short time later, the Riv was making a profit.

Shecky Greene headlined the Riviera lounge and, according to Riv publicist Tony Zoppi, "was single-handedly responsible for keeping the hotel in business" An up and coming singer from New York named Barbra Streisand made her Las Vegas debut at the Riv opening for Liberace in 1963.

Shecky Greene

Shecky Greene

The hotel expanded to meet the demands of the growing number of tourists and high rollers that flowed into Las Vegas for fun and excitement. After leaving the fabled Sands hotel, singer Dean Martin moved over to the Riv complete with his own place, Dino's Den.

But as the years rolled on, the Riv found it harder and harder to keep up with the changing face of the Strip.

As tourists and high rollers flocked to the newer hotels, the Riv slid further down. It soon became known as the place for conventioneers (due to its proximity of the back entrance to the Las Vegas Convention Center) and low rollers with a limited budget.

The original facade was changed years ago and over the years, a Burger King added along with the fanciful wall of glass and neon.

The Riv

 

But no amount of cosmetics could make up for the neglect and the changing tastes.

The Riv has stood like the lady she is against the buffeting winds of change for years as she watched original hotel after original hotel fall to the wrecking ball.

And now word comes that Riv's days are coming to an end. The Las Vegas Convention  and Visitors Authority, in need of land for expanding the already humongous Las Vegas Convention Center, has bought the land and the hotel. . No date has been officially announced for demolition though rumors of a summer demolition are running rampant.

When she goes, she will leave the Strip with only remaining original hotel still standing, the Tropicana which has been remodeled and vastly altered over the years.

Here is hoping the Marge Williams designed marquee sign once graced the front of the hotel and was moved to the Paradise Road entrance many years ago, finds a home at the Neon Museum along with some of the fanciful neon from the glass front facade.

The owners of the Peppermill right next door recently  signed a 12 year lease with the owner of the land it sits on so for now, it would seem, the Peppermill is not in the sights of the LVCVA. Here's hoping.

So here's to the Riv. In her hey-day, she was a mid-century marvel of design and home to one of the funniest men who ever worked the Strip.

Vaya con dios, Lady Riv and thanks for the memories! 

The original Riv