Danielle Kelly on the passing of sign designer Betty Willis
Iconic sign designer Betty Willis, famed for her "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign, among others, died yesterday. We asked writer and Neon Museum Executive Director Danielle Kelly for her thoughts:
Can you keep a secret? I don't like the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. Don't get me wrong — I love the idea of the sign, its manifold iterations, its ability to evoke entertainment and vintage glamour through punchy, simplified graphic geometries. Its playful animation. Its magical ability to electrify minds from Istanbul to Sidney with the luminescence of Las Vegas. And although I love that it was designed by Betty Willis, I struggle a bit with the actual design itself. I remain immune to its odd beauty and the clunky circles that string “welcome” across the top. Strangely, I don't even think of it as Willis' sign. I think of it as Our Sign.
For me, the quintessential Betty Willis sign is the Moulin Rouge. This is the sign that fills my mind’s eye when I think of the first lady of neon. To be specific, I think of the backside of that iconic script, where mauve-tinged metal peels back and spreads over the posterior edge of the signs’ perimeter, and minute triangle fingers grip the “can” in tiny rivets, holding the sign together. This is back-of-house, where the show comes together and the sign becomes a thing. A simple curl of metal sculpts light and air, and nothing suddenly becomes something. That backside has pockets of strange graffiti, stained into the alloy in childlike marks. But the pristine porcelain on the front of the sign remains untouched, and the remaining mauve paint hints at the warm pink glow that once flowed through its undulating channels. Willis’ effortless script conjures timeless elegance and grace. The empty space in the channel of each letter still positively hums with the residue of meaning, electric. I stand in awe of a woman designing a sign for the first racially integrated casino resort in Las Vegas in 1955. And I work to wrap my brain around how that light and bright script still lingers with hope in the face of such a heavy history articulated by bits of rust.
But maybe this sign isn’t hers either. It is also ours, made evident by that beautiful pristine surface untouched since 1955.
Arguably, the Betty Willis sign that truly embodies the soul of the city is the Blue Angel Motel. Willis’ heightened sense of the profile of a sign, of the play of positive/negative space between the sky and the sign, creates an incomparable visual experience in every design, but especially here. Her signs need the sky, and maybe the sky needs her signs: I swear the tip of the Blue Angel’s wand keeps the atmosphere delicately pinned above Frenchman’s Mountain. With the monumental blond bombshell at the end of Fremont Street, Willis winks at pop culture, at Tinker Bell and Marilyn Monroe, creating a sly hybrid of the two. Our sweet, guileless angel and her breathless bod absolutely twinkling at the prospect of all the beautiful people bustling at her feet. She loves us all, and she is our sign.
I believe this was part of Willis’ gift. Her signs, lovingly designed with true virtuosity, are also made with generosity; once unleashed on Las Vegas by their gifted designer, they took on a life of their own. They absorb and define the ever-changing city that continues to grow around them, enduring in their benevolent ability to be all things to all people. These are not Willis’ signs, these are the emblems of home.