Taking home the gold for digital know-how
As a Las Vegas native, I’m thrilled to talk about my hometown anytime, anyplace, to anyone. And today, as part of women’s history month, I’m thrilled to tell the story of one of my favorite Las Vegas designers, Betty Willis.
What? You’ve never heard of Betty Willis? Don’t worry — she won’t mind. But keep reading…you’ll want to know about her. In 2005, The New York Times referred to Betty as “the birth mother of fabulous.”
Betty was born in 1923 in Overton, Nevada, a small, rural, agricultural community about 1 hour outside of Las Vegas. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Las Vegas where her father was the first county assessor and built the first two-story home. She lived most of her life in Las Vegas, though the Las Vegas of her youth was distinctly different from what it is today. At the time, Las Vegas was more of a watering hole railroad stop on the way to Los Angeles. As a child, Ms. Willis remembered loving family trips to California, which is where she fell in love with neon lights.
In 1942, she began art school in Los Angeles but quit to work in advertising for an LA theater company. She returned home to Las Vegas after her mother wrote saying she missed her. Upon her return, she initially worked as a legal secretary at the courthouse but drew newspaper ads on the side.
She eventually landed a job at Young Electric Sign Company (now YESCO) and, in 1952, moved to Western Neon, a small local sign shop. It was during her time at Western Neon that a salesman proposed the idea of a welcome sign on the highway from Los Angeles. She designed the sign in 1959 and added the word “fabulous” because, in her opinion, the city was fabulous! You’ll instantly recognize her now iconic design. She intentionally designed the sign to be different — the diamond-shape was distinctive and the “silver dollars certainly represented Las Vegas in those days.” Surprisingly, she never trademarked her design, later saying it was her “gift to the city.”
As a designer, Mrs. Willis liked typography best, and her artistry is perhaps best seen in the sign she designed for the Moulin Rouge, Las Vegas’ first racially integrated hotel and casino.
Betty retired at age 77 and died in 2015 at age 91. Her Fabulous Las Vegas sign was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 and many of her other designs are now on display at The Neon Museum.
Mrs. Willis was one of the few women in Las Vegas during that era working in commercial art. During her career, she created more than 100 signs, many of which became well-known locally. I grew up admiring her designs: The Mint, the sparkling Silver Slipper, the star-filled Stardust and the Blue Angel, in particular. I remember begging my parents to drive us down The Strip and Fremont Street (the pre-canopy era when cars were still allowed) so we could “look at the lights.” We would open the sunroof of the station wagon and gaze up at the neon artistry. I remember feeling the heat from the lights and hearing the sizzle of the electric current. It’s hard not to be nostalgic when seeing Betty’s designs!
So, while you’re in Vegas, think of Betty, the birth mother of fabulous, and enjoy your stay!