Bob Brye / Las Vegas News Bureau
Monday, April 20, 2015 | 6:15 p.m.
Betty Willis once told me one of her favorite stories about the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. This yarn unfolded about a decade ago, long before a parking and landing area topped by fake grass were installed at the famed visage on Las Vegas Boulevard South.
At the time, a PBS crew working on a documentary about Las Vegas was interviewing Willis. She was driven by cab to the site just across from the now-razed Klondike Hotel-Casino so she could be recorded standing on the road near the sign.
As Willis stepped from the cab, a limousine pulling off to the side of the road nearly clipped her as she stood maybe 20 feet from the legendary sign that she helped create. The limo was carrying a group of tourists also planning to pose for an iconic shot.
“The cab driver was furious,” said Willis a few years after the incident. “He was shouting, ‘Do you know who you almost ran over?! She designed that sign!’ ”
An artist specializing in some of Las Vegas’ most famous neon signs, Willis died Sunday at her home in Overton, where she had moved in 2008. She was 91.
In June of that year, she made her final public appearance to talk about the sign during a panel discussion with her friend Brian “Buzz” Leming, who also died Sunday and was famous for designing the Hacienda horse-and-rider sign along with the original Rio, Aladdin and Caesars Palace signs.
Willis, too, designed many famous signs other than Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, which she created with contribution from Ted Rogich. The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign fell in line with others she created as an employee at Western Sign Co.
Willis created the concept for the Moulin Rouge sign and was particularly fond of the curvy Blue Angel sign and the famous Mint Hotel sign. She once joked that she was once flying back from Reno and had fallen asleep during the short flight. She awoke, looked out the window and thought, “Wow! Reno has a Mint sign just like ours!”
But amid all the noteworthy hotel-casino signs she designed, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign stands alone as a singularly important and famous ode to the city’s history. The sign was first illuminated in 1959 and still remains one of the most famous landmarks ever in Las Vegas, as tourists and costumed buskers pose in front of the sign at all hours.
Remarkably, the sign’s design was never trademarked, as Willis and the company wanted it to belong to the masses, a decision that has led to widespread use on items ranging from key chains to coffee mugs to Christmas ornaments.
It's not even the lone Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign anymore. There are two others: The sign on Las Vegas Boulevard north of the Stratosphere that reads “Welcome to Fabulous Downtown Las Vegas” and a third on Boulder Highway that marks the gateway from the Boulder Strip to Las Vegas. All have the same design, but the original is far and away the most famous.
Willis said her inspiration for the sign’s famed oblong design was from the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. logo of the era. The starburst at the top was inspired by Disneyland, bringing to mind a happy destination. The seven silver dollars spelling out “welcome” were to remind of luck. The back of the sign was the focus of debate, as some of Willis’ colleagues urged her to scrawl the message “Keep Nevada Green” to those leaving the city — green meaning money, of course.
“I didn’t think it was very nice,” Willis said. “Repeat business is always better.”
The word “fabulous” was chosen because it was the one word Willis always used to describe Las Vegas.
"It was just a word a whole lot of people liked, and we liked it, too," Willis said. "We really thought Las Vegas was a fabulous place."