Designer of the “Fabulous Las Vegas” Sign Dies At 91

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While illuminated signs have been popular for decades, few are as popular as the famous Las Vegas landmark sign, which proudly welcomes visitors to “Fabulous Las Vegas!” The 25-foot neon sign was installed in 1959 and likely inspired many business owners to contact an electric sign company themselves after seeing the benefits of illuminated signs in person. Unfortunately, it was recently announced that the famous sign’s designer, Betty Willis, died on Sunday, April 19 at the age of 91. However, her story and her legacy offer a fascinating perspective on Sin City’s favorite landmark and how sign companies have transformed one of the oldest forms of advertising.

Born Betty Jane Whitehead, Willis was born in Overton, NV on May 20, 1923, the daughter of a county assessor and a homemaker. As a young woman, she attended art school in Los Angeles, but eventually quit her work in advertising, and moved back to Nevada to be closer to her mother. For several years, she worked as a courthouse attendant and legal secretary, while moonlighting as a commercial artist drawing newspaper advertisements. However, she was later hired by an electric sign company, Western Neon, to help the business design a distinctive greeting for visitors.

Their final design combined a number of local and cultural inspirations, including a diamond-shaped motif derived from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company logo, white neon circles reminiscent of silver dollars, and a red and yellow metal starburst inspired by Disney. Then, of course, there is the famous slogan: in an interview with the New York Times in 2005, Willis said ““We thought the town was fabulous, so we added the word. There was no other word to use.”

The sign was installed with $4,000 on Highway 91, which was the only road leading from Los Angeles in 1959. At the time, the sign was four miles from the city limits, but many people still snuck out to take pictures or even get married in front of the famous display. Eventually, the city of Las Vegas added parking spaces to make this tradition a little safer. In 1993, a proposal to demolish the sign was briefly considered, only to be defeated by a sizable public outcry. In 2009, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now maintained by the Young Electric Sign Company for the county.

In the years since the sign was first installed, its design has been freely reproduced and mimicked by signs companies around the world, and for good reason: studies show that 50% of new customers are attracted to businesses by on-premise signs, and more than one-third of consumers report looking at outdoor ads each or most of the time they pass them, two factors that likely caused and continued the sign’s success as a symbol and landmark. However, Willis never copyrighted the logo or profited directly from her design. Her work also included signs for the Moulin Rouge, the city’s first racially-integrated casino, and the Blue Angel Motel. These businesses were likely not only drawn to her reputation as a designer but also the benefits of signs themselves: a redesigned onsite business sign has been found to cost just $0.02 per 1000 views and it reaches more of an overall market than any other form of advertising.

Willis is survived by her daughter, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Meanwhile, her contribution to the fabulous city she loved lives on.

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