LAS VEGAS On a night of proclamations crammed with the word "whereas," a retired neon sign designer named Brian Leming offered a moment of levity.
It was a VIP event Tuesday before Saturday's opening of the open-air Neon Museum after more than 15 years of effort. More than 150 neon signs made by Leming and others surrounded him, hunks of metal and glowing glass that fulfilled the growing demands of mid-20th-century commerce. They are increasingly considered expressions of history, art and architecture, worth preserving and exhibiting.
But Leming, 72, evoked their down-to-earth origins. He recalled a design meeting for the Stardust Hotel-Casino, then run by Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, a Las Vegas kingpin immortalized in Nicholas Pileggi's book and Martin Scorsese's film "Casino."
Rosenthal was notoriously detail-oriented.
"We were sitting around a conference table and arguing about the right shade of purple," Leming recalled. "And I'm thinking, 'Jesus, they're discussing the nuances of purple, and this is Frank Rosenthal!' "
Leming is a craftsman from a bygone era, when people drew with pencils, heated and bent glass tubes, filled the glass with neon and argon gas, cut and shaped metal and fiberglass, and hoisted larger-than-life tableaus onto buildings and above roads filled with men and women who were falling in love with cars.
The neon signs of Las Vegas have earned recognition beyond those of any other city, said Bill Marion, the museum's board chairman. This may explain why the museum's collection has drawn 20,000 visitors a year by appointment only, plus countless photo and film shoots, even before it officially opened.
The foundation running the museum formed in 1997 and the Young Electric Sign Co. donated dozens of signs shortly afterward, but for years they sat in a dusty lot that could be seen only by appointment.
That changed in 2005, when a quirky building with a roof shaped like a seashell, the La Concha Motel, was donated to the museum. The 1960s motel lobby, designed by pioneering black architect Paul Revere Williams, became the visitors' center and headquarters of the Neon Museum.
Cutting the building into eight pieces, moving them nearly four miles north along Las Vegas Boulevard and reassembling them cost $1.2 million. Adding administrative offices, bathrooms and an outdoor deck cost an additional $1.6 million. But the snowball effect set in motion by acquiring the building drew a series of city, state and federal grants, as well as private donations. The museum has a reserve of about $400,000 and is debt-free, Marion said.
A tour makes clear why the board has decided to show the collection via docents, and not with headsets or plaques. Justin Favela, the programs coordinator and a veteran of more than 1,000 tours since 2007, leavened the standard mix of names, dates and places with personal anecdotes.
Pausing in front a giant "H," he said: "This came from the Horseshoe casino, owned by Benny Binion, who may or may not have killed someone. When I gave the tour to Binion's son Jack, he said, 'You don't have to sugarcoat it.' "
He points to the graceful curl of a sign's script announcing the "Moulin Rouge," recalling that it was the first integrated casino, which opened in 1955 and went bankrupt in less than a year.
Danielle Kelly, the museum's executive director, said the value of the signs goes beyond personal memories.
"This is commercial archaeology, art and architecture," she said.