Sarah Feldberg
Sarah Feldberg

Just north of Downtown Las Vegas, sits the Neon Museum and its outdoor Boneyard, a graveyard of sorts for the city's neon signs. Here, the graceful letters that once marked the Sahara and the Moulin Rouge have found a resting place alongside signage that dates from the 1930s to the 21st century. And while these once-shining works are an enduring symbol of Las Vegas, today most of the town's iconic neon lives here, as unplugged relics of the city's past. 

Just last month, another neon sign shone for the final time. On Feb. 13, the Palms removed its landmark sign as part of the property's $485 million renovation under new owners Station Casinos. A towering readerboard topped by a video screen and a wave of neon, the Palms marquee was a fixture near the Strip, with lettering that advertised celebrity performers and sometimes poked fun at pop culture figures. 

When the 14-foot Palms letters came down last month, the M was removed first to honor George Maloof, the resort's founder.

The Palms marquee came down last month to make way for a digital version as part of $485 million renovation of the resort.
The Palms marquee came down last month to make way for a digital version as part of $485 million renovation of the resort. Photo Credit: Courtesy Palms Casino Resort

Eventually, a new marquee will rise in the original's place. Renderings show a massive vertical LED sign topped by the Palms logo with struts that span rows of the hotel's parking lot. The design is sleek and modern — and extremely similar to a number of other casino signs that have gone up on the Strip in the past decade.

"When people think of Vegas signage, they think of the Stardust and the Flaming, those large, over-the-top neon signs," says Tracey Sprague, collections specialist at the Neon Museum. But that impression is increasingly outdated. "Definitely casino properties, especially on the Strip, have switched over to more LED options."

If one property can be credited with kick-starting Las Vegas' digital marquee era, it's the Cosmopolitan. When the hotel-casino opened in 2010, it beckoned visitors from the Strip with a 65-foot vertical sign perched on the edge of the pool deck. Made up of four LED screens, the marquee not only displayed artful videos advertising the resort's restaurants and amenities, but also broadcast live concerts happening at the pool and featured digital artwork from people like Yoko Ono and Tracey Emin. The focus was on the content broadcast on the screen, rather than the shape of the sign itself. 

Other casinos quickly followed suit. Next door to the Cosmo, the Aria unveiled a behemoth marquee in 2013 that stretched 260 feet tall and 65 feet wide, dwarfing its neighbor and costing a whopping $18 million. The MGM Grand got new LEDs in 2014, even making the letters of the logo into high-resolution video screens, and the Linq opened the same year with a towering pillar of pixels 130 feet tall. 

Last year, Caesars Palace added a digital marquee to the Forum Shops, where an 85-foot-high, wraparound screen is framed by Corinthian columns, its 6,000-square-feet of LED real estate able to transform into a golden wall, a Roman gateway or an advertisement for one of the shopping center's stores or restaurants. 
"It's very intense, very bright and pretty cool," said Sprague, who noted that Vegas casinos have always engaged in visual one-upmanship, whether through adding more bulbs and flashier neon or building bigger, more elaborate LED marquees. 

"Some of the earlier neon signs weren't that big, but the next person down the road kept getting bigger."

Wandering the Strip today, visitors are bombarded not by flashing neon, but by giant screens shining with complex works of digital animation that blur the lines between advertising and art as they constantly shift from one eye-catching image to another. It's enthralling and a bit overwhelming, a sort of Times Square effect that stretches for miles. 

But amid all that modern flash there are signs of the city's neon history. Sprague points to the giant balloon outside the Paris Las Vegas, the glittering pink entrance of the Flamingo and Circus Circus, where Lucky the Clown still smiles down in vibrant, colorful neon. 

And for visitors who want to revel in a bit of vintage Vegas, there's always Fremont Street, where neon signs are required on some buildings to maintain that classic aesthetic, and of course, the Neon Museum, where iconic signs — and the stories behind them — live on.

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