Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Coolest Museum. Ever.

There are times when friends, colleagues or perhaps chatty strangers compliment me on my photos. I love that. I've always wanted to take a photography class, but that- along with those French and sushi-making classes- tend to get pushed aside to some vague undefined future date. In the meantime, those pictures aren't going to take themselves, so I have to make do. In order to get maximum results with minimum training, there are a couple of tricks that I employ.

First of all, I carry a camera, a Canon Powershot SX20is. This should seem fairly obvious but we now live in an era where Apple, Samsung et al have convinced people that phones= cameras. They don't. A phone will do when you absolutely positively have to get a photo of your Spaghetti Bolognese because, man oh man, that Olive Garden is off the chain but if you are in the middle of the Serengeti, trying to capture the majesty of a pride of lions with your iPhone5s, I am going to mock you two ways. Loudly and often.

Secondly, and this may be even more obvious, I go to really cool places. I can't really take credit for this one. My job and very flexible schedule allow to me to do this.  But when I do get one of these opportunities, I photograph the shit out of it.  I go at it as if I were being paid by the pixel.  Case in point, the Neon Museum in Las Vegas.
I had been wanting to visit the Neon Museum since before there was such a thing as the Neon Museum.  Previously, there was a place called the Neon Boneyard, where the old neon signs from Vegas' yesteryears went to- maybe not die- but take an extended nap.  To visit, you had to call up weeks in advance and set up an appt., which is perfectly reasonable if you know ahead of time that you are going to be in Las Vegas.  But this is not my beautiful life.  I usually know my whereabouts days, sometimes hours, in advance, so my chances of walking amongst the Strip's coolest souvenirs, were supermodel slim.

In October 2012, this all changed.  The Neon Museum was now opened to the public.


For their visitor's center, they moved the La Concha hotel's entire concrete facade, thus both
acquiring the perfect retro entryway and saving an iconic design by one of the nation's first African American architects, Paul Williams.


Due to the nature of the exhibition (picture what a hoarder's back yard would look like if said hoarder had access to all the old neon signs in town), visitors still have to pre-book online for an hour long guided tour- solo wandering is not allowed- but going by my experience, the pre-booking can be done as late as the day before.


Normally, I would scoff at the mandatory group tour.  I would still join but there would be scoffing, but this particular tour did so much more than just prevent visitors from getting impaled on rusty neon tubes. Our guide, Mitch Cohen, was an impassioned signologist (No spellcheck, you're wrong! That is a word.  Now.)

That's Mitch with the hat and the rapt audience.
Through his stories, he brought back my very favorite Vegas, the old Vegas.  Mind you, I never actually got to see that Vegas for myself, but I am nostalgic for it, just the same. I was a huge fan of the late 70's series tv series, Vega$.  Despite having been to New Vegas over a dozen times, in my mind's eye, Dan Tanna is still cruising the strip in a red Thunderbird, after meeting with Tony Curtis at the Desert Inn.
The Golden Nugget's Golden Nugget


These signs we were walking past all featured prominently in those memories and where those admittedly vicarious memories failed, Mitch stepped in, filling us in on the history of Vegas' colorful (and of course neon-lit) past....



and present.  The El Cortez is one of the very few old-school casinos that is still around and according to Mitch, does the best job of capturing the feel of how it was back then.  Guess where I bee-lined it to for a cocktail after the tour was over?



Through the signs (and Mitch), we learned about the Moulin Rouge, the first casino to allow blacks as patrons.  Opened in May, 1955, it quickly became a hub for all the black entertainers who were allowed to perform in other casinos but not gamble or stay there.  We're talking Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis, Jr, Lena Horne, et al, who would show up  after their shows and throw impromptu jam sessions.  It was the hottest ticket in town.  So hot in fact, that in November 1995- just 6 months after it opened and 5 months after being featured on the cover of Life magazine- it was forced to shut down.  Turns out the mobsters that controlled Vegas didn't like this new way of doing things and made it a point to shut down the party.

Moulin Rouge's "R"
And part of its' 'ouge

History aside, from what I could tell, the museum is set up according to a couple of criteria.  One is to divide the signs by their original purpose, so in one section, you have hotel signs, in another restaurant signs and in yet another, a miscellaneous mishmash.  The other criteria seems to be: what would make the coolest photo.  Although the entry rules clearly prohibit professional photography, they have set everything up in a way in which taking a bad photo is nearly impossible.

This factors in perfectly with my 2nd rule for good photos by a person who relies heavily on auto-focus.  Cases in point:




This sign was featured in the Griswald's family Vegas vacation.






















This is the oldest sign from the collection.


















Now if only speaking French and making sushi were so easy....

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