Neon, Burlesque, Tikis and a Dam Good Time
Las Vegas is a cool destination for retro cats and history loving kittens. Be sure and check out the Neon Museum, Burlesque Hall of Fame, The Golden Tiki and the Hoover Dam on your next Las Vegas weekender.
The Neon Museum
The Neon Museum of Las Vegas exceeded my expectations in every way. We booked a tour for after dark so that we could see the signs lit up. Our guide was a local from Las Vegas who adored his hometown. His speech was sprinkled with fascinating stories about Las Vegas history and he could answer every question.
The Neon Museum ticket office is the gorgeous midcentury La Concha Motel lobby. La Concha Motel was designed by architect Paul Williams, one of the first prominent African American architects in the U.S. Williams also designed the first LAX theme building and helped define mid century modern architecture. The Neon Museum raised $600,000 to move the building from its original site.
Founded in 1996, the Neon Museum is a non-profit organization. The Neon Museum rescues old signs and rehabilitates them. The tour guides you through the design and evolution of signage from the 1930s to the present. I was impressed by how the signs were organized into different themes. The Neon Museum is an example of how curation and organization enhances a collection.
Every Neon Sign Tells a Story
The Neon Museum has preserved the signs of locations that have historic significance.The giant script sign of the Moulin Rouge occupies a place of pride. Opened in 1955, the Moulin Rouge was the first racially integrated casino-hotel in Las Vegas. The lobby of the museum also has an exhibit about this historic property.
The Red Barn sign commemorates the first openly gay bar in Las Vegas. In the early 1960s it was straight in the day and gay at night. By 1968, it was openly gay and showing the RB Follies, a drag show. The bar also published the RB Rag, one of the first gay magazine’s in Nevada. The sign was made by Young Electric Sign Company, which had a gay owner.
“Kids walking home…would throw rocks at the sign…and break our neon. In the early ‘70s that was a lot of money when you got a $680 bill to have that simple, little old sign repaired.”Albert “Bert” Hood, former owner of the Red Barn
The original Stardust sign is at the Neon Museum. The Stardust opened in 1958, and was inspired by America’s fascination with the Space Race. The Stardust celebrated nuclear mushroom cloud viewing parties with lobster dinners and “atomic cocktails.” The U.S. The Department of Energy tested more than a thousand nuclear devices at the Nevada Test Site, just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The giant guitar from the Hard Rock Cafe is the most expensive piece in the museum. It cost $350,000 to move the sign to the Neon Museum. The guitar is a replica of the guitar used by Pete Townsend from The Who. The Las Vegas Hard Rock Cafe closed in 2020.
Everyday Vegas Sign History
Everyday Vegas history is also preserved at the Neon Museum. For example, there is a sign from a laundromat chain that featured a blue neon shirt waving its arms. The laundry facility hand-cleaned the capes of pianist Liberace. This involved removing each rhinestone before cleaning and then resewing them back on.
The red neon milkman sign of the local Anderson Dairy is also on display. The Diary, which still operates, gives tours to all public school children. Locals laughed together remembering that the best part of the tour was the free ice cream.
Tim Burton Signs
In 2018, Tim Burton did an exhibit at the Neon Museum and they still have four of his original signs on display. Burton is a wildly creative American film director, producer, artist, writer and animator.
We also booked tickets for ”Brilliant! A Neon Museum Experience” which is held in “the boneyard” of non-operational signs. LIghts, vintage Las Vegas images, old movie narrations, and music tell the history of Las Vegas. The show reminded me of the laserium shows of the 1980s and was worth the extra admission.
Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Liberace, Elton John and Sammy Davis Junior are a few of the featured artists. The way the lights shine on the old signs makes them appear operational.
The Burlesque Hall of Fame
The Burlesque Hall of Fame is dedicated to preserving the legacy of burlesque. Originally started to house the collection of tassel-twirler Jennie Lee, the Burlesque Hall of Fame expanded to collect oral histories and honor the remaining legends of burlesque. Gypsy Rose Lee, Josephine Baker, Blaze Star, Mae West, and Sandy Rand are all featured, along with hundreds of other stars of the Burly-Q.
“Burlesque has always been a domain of transformation, allowing ambitious farmgirls, impoverished workers, and runaways of all kinds to become new people, to become fantasies.”exhibit, The Burlesque Hall of Fame
The museum is organized as a timeline from the rise of burlesque as part of vaudeville, all the way to the modern “neo-burlesque” movement. The tour guide, who is passionate about the subject, leads you through the collection of photographs, advertising posters, costumes and props.
In addition to the amazing photos, the museum includes the G-String worn by Tempest Storm, “Burlesque’s last great superstar.” The famous martini glass of Dita Von Teese and a wall of tassels excite visitors and offer fun photo ops.
Exhibits at The Burlesque Hall of Fame
Living Legend of 2020 recipient Coby Yee, was a famous burlesque dancer from China Town in San Francisco. In the 1960s, Coby Yee, opened her own nightclub called The Dragon Lady. She also created a traveling revue called the Dragon Ladies, and taught dance classes. The exhibit includes her hand-made costumes.
The back of the museum includes an exhibit called “Becoming Burlesque.” The exhibit inspires all women to embrace their inner temptress. The exhibit is based on the work of Jo Weldon, dancer and author of The Burlesque Handbook.
The Burlesque Hall of Fame offers classes in burlesque dancing so you too can learn the art of the tease.
The Golden Tiki
Although I have explored How to Create a Tiki Bar at Home, nothing beats going out and experiencing the real thing. The Golden Tiki is at the top of my list of best tiki bars. Make reservations so you don’t have to wait to enter this enchanted place.
Tiki bar staples like classic puffer fish, lanterns, hanging foliage, thatched roofs, wall coverings and tikis are all artfully blended. The decorations include Disney items from Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World.
A collection of hand-made shrunken heads of celebrities fills two glass display cases. The women’s restroom had centerfold wallpaper and a penis museum! Portholes hidden around the bar feature additional beefcake delights.
The drinks are reasonably priced and artistic. Mai Tais and other typical rum drinks are available, but so are other tiki drinks made from gin and vodka. For an additional charge, any drink can be set on fire.
The music is great and the happy staff makes your tiki bar experience delightful. There is a giant clam to capture an Instagram photo. Many patrons come dressed in aloha wear which adds to the festive atmosphere.
The Hoover Dam
A retro road trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting the engineering marvel that made settlement of Las Vegas and the western United States possible. The Hoover Dam opened in 1935, after five years of construction. It is called the “Eighth Wonder of the Modern World.” The dam lies between Nevada and Arizona and you can see the state line marker when you stand upon the dam.
The Hoover Dam was built to tame the Colorado River. Fed by snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River rushed unchecked to the Gulf of California. It often caused devastating flood damage. In fact, the Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River jumped its banks.
Herbert Hoover Proposed the Dam Before he was President
The dam is named after Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the U.S. Although Hoover is now remembered for his leadership failures during the Great Depression, he also was an engineer, a conservationist and an avid fisherman.
Hoover became Secretary of Commerce in 1921, and one of his earliest proposals was the construction of a high dam in Boulder Canyon. As an engineer and resident of California, Hoover knew a dam could provide flood control, expand irrigated farming and provide a dependable water supply for Los Angeles and Southern California. Most importantly, the dam would be self-supporting and financed entirely by the sale of hydroelectric power generated at the dam.
Seven states use the water of the Colorado River (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, California) Needless to say, getting approval to construct the dam was an enormous challenge. It wasn’t until Hoover became president himself, in 1929, that construction of the dam was approved.
Art Deco Design at the Hoover Dam
When I visited the dam in June, tours were not offered and the Visitor Center was closed. However, the beautiful design and art deco details of the dam made it worth the trip.
While standing on the dam, you notice the beautiful geometry of the intake towers, the sleek sides of the dam and the triangular towers supporting the wires. The dam was originally designed by engineers for functionality. However, architect Gordon B. Kaufmann was asked to comment on the aesthetics of the dam and then allowed to improve them.
“Kaufmann simplified the dam’s design and replaced ornamentation with the flowing lines of Modernism and Art Deco. The four areas where his influence is most visible are the power plant, dam crest, intake towers, and spillways.”Julian Rhinehart, Bureau of Reclamation website
Winged Figures of the Republic and Plaza
Sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen, won a national competition and was appointed consulting sculptor by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes. The 30-foot bronzed statues of seated men with wings represent “that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
In front of the winged figures is a plaza paved with terrazzo. Over a black background, Hansen created a terrazzo star map depicting the celestial alignment from that site on the dam on the evening of September 30, 1935. That was the day President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the dam.
The authoritarian voice booming over the plaza explains that the star map was created for “visitors from the future.” The plaza also has a sun wheel with art deco symbols of each zodiac sign. It is an amusing juxtaposition of modern engineering and hippie astrology.
Other Art Deco Artworks
A bronze plaque, created by Hansen, memorializes the 96 workers who died during the construction of the dam. The inscription reads, “They died to make the desert bloom.”
While crossing over the dam, be sure and look above the two golden elevator towers. Hansen also made these classic art deco reliefs. The Arizona tower has five white stone bas-reliefs honoring Native American tribes and their Great Spirit. On the Nevada side, five white panels pay tribute to the dam’s main purposes: flood control, navigation, irrigation, water storage and power.
Take a peek inside the restrooms on top of the dam and see the terrazzo floor art. These were designed by Allen True, a Denver artist. He chose to use Southwestern Indian designs from sources like the Acoma bowl and Pima basket.
“True linked Native American geometric concepts with Art Deco design. Many of the Indian designs were based on centrifugal themes, which related to the turbines in the power plant.”Julian Rhinehart, Bureau of Reclamation
The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge
While standing on the Hoover Dam, you can’t help but notice how beautiful the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge looks with its arches and rectangles. Construction began in 2005 and the bridge opened in 2010 so cars would no longer need to drive over the dam on US 93.
The bridge is jointly named for Mike O’Callaghan, a former governor of Nevada, and Pat Tillman, a former Arizona Cardinal. Tillman left professional football to join the U.S. Army, and he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 by friendly fire.
You can park your car and walk over the bridge. This offers a great place to take pictures of the dam with Lake Mead behind it.
Hoover Dam and Lake Mead at Lowest Levels in History
My visit was bittersweet because it was on the same day that the Bureau of Reclamation stated that Lake Mead had just dropped to its lowest level. The trend will continue. The Colorado River watershed has suffered from a 22 year “megadrought” made worse by Climate Change. The demand for water outstrips the supply and the drought causes the supply to continue to drop.
“With every foot the lake declines, about 6 megawatts of power-generating capacity is lost. The lowest level at which Hoover could produce power is about 950 feet, with an expected capacity of 650 megawatts. If the lake were to fall below that point…the dam would no longer be able to generate power.”Ian James, AzCentral.com
There is so much more to Las Vegas than gambling and restaurants. Add a few days to your next visit so you can take in the retro road trip delights of neon, burlesque, tiki bars and the Hoover Dam.