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Betty Willis, designer of the Las Vegas welcome sign, dies at 91

Image

Las Vegas News Bureau

Betty Willis at the West Charleston Library on December 7, 2002.

Updated Tuesday, April 21, 2015 | 10:21 a.m.

Las Vegas Sign

Legendary Las Vegas neon sign designer Betty Willis, known for her world-famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign, talks about how she created her illustrious masterpiece and the significance of each of the sign's various symbols.

Betty Willis, who designed the iconic neon sign that has welcomed countless visitors to Las Vegas since 1959, has died. She was 91.

Willis died Sunday in her Overton home of natural causes, according to an obituary on the Virgin Valley & Moapa Valley Mortuaries website.

The Southern Nevada native is credited with designing the famed and often mimicked Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas neon sign that sits in a median in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard South. She was one of the few female designers during that era, as she worked for the Western Neon sign company.

The iconic sign has become such a popular photo backdrop that a parking lot for cars and tour buses in the middle of the street was expanded in 2012.

In a statement, Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak shared his admiration for Willis and her creation.

“The fact that everyone loves that sign and its design after all these years is a testament to Betty’s talents," he said. "It has to be the most photographed sign in the world and one of the top spots in Las Vegas to get your picture taken. There is probably no bigger Las Vegas icon than that sign.”

Willis also designed other Las Vegas icons, including the signs for the Moulin Rouge sign, the Riviera Hotel original pylon and hotel ads for the Flamingo, Rancho and Thunderbird.

Neon Museum Executive Director Danielle Kelly said some of the cutouts of Willis' signs looked like "illuminated parts floating in the sky" where the "night sky would become part of the canvas."

Willis didn't take all the credit. In a video interview from January 2008 provided by the Las Vegas News Bureau, she shared credit with Ted Rogich, a salesman at Western Neon.

"Ted and I made a study of signs all over Las Vegas and Southern California and chose a shape which was not used very often. It's hard to fit in copy in that diamond shape, so people would not be able to get their entire company name in it. ... We took everything we knew ... and built the sign to be different."

She lived to see the sign become known around the world and accepted into the National Register of Historic Places.

"When it came out in the The New York Times I think everyone in the world read it and traveled here to talk to Mayor (Oscar) Goodman and to myself and that's quite an experience. It's overwhelming."

Asked how she felt about the sign being used rampantly, she said, "My dad used to be chamber of commerce president and I think he'd be proud."

Jeff Young, senior vice president of the Young Electric Sign Co., which owns and maintains the sign, said, "The thing that strikes us is that Betty remained so humble about her contribution and so reserved about her gift to the city." YESCO, which merged with Western Neon, owns the trademark but continues to allow the image to be freely replicated as Willis had intended.

“She’s an amazing designer and added so much to the Vegas skyline, and she’s going to be greatly missed,” Young said. The company plans to maintain the sign in its current state for generations to come, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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