April 19 was a dim day in Las Vegas, Nevada, as two of its legendary designers from the glory days of neon signs passed away within hours of each other.
Betty Jane Willis, 91, the designer of the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” neon sign, died peacefully in her home in Overton, Nevada. The sign, erected in 1959, has served as Las Vegas’s welcome marquee, its city logo, and an enduring symbol of its visual culture. Hundreds of tourists still risk life and limb to scurry to the grassy median where the sign is erected for that golden selfie. “Classic neon artists like Betty are the design heroes of the city, giving the place an image in the public mind,” Richard Hooker, the city’s senior cultural specialist once commented.
Willis explained that the rounded diamond shape of the sign was inspired by the Goodyear logo and the idea for the starburst came from the one in Disneyland’s emblem, which to her meant a happy destination. The seven silver dollars were a symbol of good luck for visitors entering the world’s gambling capital. Willis’s design was never trademarked. It has been adapted in tourism flyers, Nevada license plates, and a marketing campaign by Southwest Airlines, and is even widely available as clip art. The sign was entered in the National Record of Historic Places in 2009.
Born in 1923 in a small town northeast of Las Vegas, Willis had a long, trailblazing career as a graphic artist, retiring only when she was 77 years old. Profiled by the New York Times in 2005, Willis said, “I never felt like a great artist in what I was doing but I had good ideas. And I was willing to take the time to learn all of the engineering and the technical elements involved with neon signs.” The executive director of the Neon Museum, Danielle Kelly, said, “Betty Willis was a woman designer dominating an almost exclusively masculine field during the 1950s and 1960s—a kind of Peggy Olson [the female ad copywriter in the TV show Mad Men] for her profession.”
Brian K. Leming, Sr., aged 74, also passed away. “Buzz,” as he was known, spent 50 years as a sign designer, creating some of the Strip’s most memorable marquees for establishments such as the Fremont Hotel, the Las Vegas Club, the Coin Castle, the California Hotel, Westward Ho, Sahara, Rio, and The Barbary Coast, which was his favorite.
Born in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Leming was known for being a tinkerer. After three years in the navy, he learned the craft of sign-making at Western Neon. When asked how his work has evolved over the years, he commented, “It kind of got ruined for me when we got into computers. I’m a sketcher. I draw. Nowadays they won’t let you do that anymore. If they bring you in on a job on Monday, they want to see some ideas on Tuesday,” he said in an interview with Arts Vegas.
Leming was an early supporter of the Neon Museum, which has saved over 150 decommissioned signs, serving as a graveyard (or purgatory) for casualties of Las Vegas’s rapidly changing landscape. The Museum launched with an installation of its first restored sign, Leming’s Hacienda Horse and Rider.
Both Willis and Leming worked at the Western Sign Company, where they struck up a friendship. Willis’s last public appearance was with Leming, when they spoke together about the heyday of Las Vegas neon during a panel discussion last June. Many of their works are preserved in the Neon Museum’s outdoor “boneyard” (see top picture), where it stores its relics.