Neon bible – the woman who shaped the Las Vegas skyline

Neon bible - the woman who shaped the Las Vegas skyline
The iconic Las Vegas sign

Betty Willis, who died last week, created the iconic 1959 sign welcoming visitors to the centre of the gambling universe. Yet much of her work has since been destroyed

Timing is half the battle. Baron Haussmann was lucky enough to be hanging around Paris at the exact moment Napoleon III thought it could do with a refit. Christopher Wren had the good fortune to be alive at the time of Britain’s worst bakery fire. And Betty Willis happened to be working for a sign manufacturer in Las Vegas when the twin forces of modish Googie architecture and the leisure era came together to cut it a singularly brash neon destiny.

Willis, who died on 19 April, aged 92, was the artist behind the world’s most famous city sign: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas. Since 1959, it has stood at the foot of the main drag, welcoming visitors to (fabulous) Las Vegas with seven silver dollars circling the “Welcome”, and an eight-pointed star signalling arrival at the gambler’s Bethlehem.

But even by the time she made the now-iconic sign, gifted to the city by her firm Western Neon, Willis was building her own take on Googie: a language of design nowadays spoken mainly in our kitsch appreciation of its naive dreams of a brighter tomorrow.

Her Blue Angel Motel commission greeted travellers forking off the I-515 with a 30ft blue angel, pointing her wand toward the motel below. Willis made the figurine voluptuous, and in response to criticisms of the outsized breasts, said only: “Well, you show me an angel and I’ll draw her.” []