‘ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’: Remembering Betty Willis on 60th anniversary of her iconic Vegas greeting

This isn’t Las Vegas—but it’s where a Las Vegas story begins.

Here, just an hour north up the I-15, birds are the headliners. Nearly in tune and practically in rhythm, they sweetly serenade the porch fronting a stucco ranch house so all-American that its blue exterior is accented by a red door and white picket fence, in a neighborhood so blissfully Mayberry-ish that you can almost smell Aunt Bee’s peach cobbler.

Across the street from this cozy homestead in Overton, nearly a century ago, an artistic trailblazer came into the world. Ironically, she would weave her singular magic in service of a wildly different, pleasure-seeking aesthetic — in our neon nirvana, where razzle met dazzle and glitz hooked up with glamour — that she immortalized in six words she encased in lights. And in legacy.

Betty Willis with a Las Vegas News Bureau photo of her “Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas” sign at the West Charleston Library in 2002. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

“Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada.” You’ve seen the sign. Now know the trailblazer: Betty Willis.

“She was born in that house, right on the kitchen table,” says Marjorie Holland, daughter of the fabled sign designer, pointing toward a house diagonally across the street from Holland’s own home — where Willis passed away 91 years later. May 20 marks what would have been her 96th birthday.

Yes, the woman who created the iconic sign that welcomes visitors from around the globe to the hustle-bustle of our world-renowned playground – and lent her signature style to so much classic Vegas signage – died in a bucolic ‘burb mere steps from her birthplace, where her parents first arrived in a horse-drawn buggy in 1905. Two weeks after her birth, her parents moved to Las Vegas, where her destiny awaited, to this city’s eternal gratitude.

“I began to appreciate what she did when I was around 16,” Holland recalls. “I was with my friends, driving down the Strip, and I could count on one hand the signs she didn’t have something to do with, either a redo or a total drawing of a sign.” Those benchmarks — including for the former, and historic Moulin Rouge (the city’s first racially integrated casino); the star-flecked Stardust logo; the stylish black/white/red City Center Motel emblem; and the winged, wand-waving buxom spirit hovering like an ethereal sentry over the Blue Angel Motel as bluebirds flitted above — helped craft an image of Las Vegas that endures and thrives to this day.

Dubbed “the birth mother of fabulous” by The New York Times, Willis died in April 2015. Yet her most famous creation lives on, as May 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of her “Fabulous” greeting to tourists the world over. 

Entranced by neon on theater marquees during childhood trips to Los Angeles, where she would attend art school right after graduating from Las Vegas High School in 1941, Willis kick-started her career there, drawing ads for Fox West Coast Theaters.

Returning home in 1943, she had several day jobs, including as a legal secretary, while also taking a moonlighting gig, drawing newspaper ads depicting high-kicking showgirls. Making the leap to full-time artist, she worked for several ad/design firms, but history came calling after she joined Western Neon in 1952. There, she encountered salesman Ted Rogich (father of businessman Sig Rogich), who proposed the idea for a “welcome” sign to greet travelers from L.A.

After a long, fruitful working life, Willis retired at age 77— because her car broke down, curtailing her mobility, her daughter says. Rather than repair it, she simply called it a career.  She died at age 91.  “I still feel her presence,” Holland says, her eyes moistening. “She’s still here.”

The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 1, 2009. (Mark Damon/Las Vegas News Bureau) SLIDESHOW

So is her most beloved creation, erected at the south end of the Strip as an unofficial city entry point in 1959. “When I build ’em, they last!” the feisty and funny Willis told The New York Times in 2005 about the 25-foot-high welcome sign. In 2009 the sign was added to the National Register of Historic Places (https://www.nps.gov/nr/), lauded as the “best-preserved and indeed the most iconic expression of the remarkable ascendancy of postwar Las Vegas and its famous strip.”  And just because it’s in one spot doesn’t mean it’s not everywhere – snow globes, key chains, shot glasses, boxer shorts, and more.

“A lady sent her a picture of her pool and it’s on the bottom of her pool in tile,” Holland recalls. “And we were in a doctor’s office and a guy had it tattooed on his calf.  My mom looked and went, ‘Oh my gosh, my sign!’ The guy looked up and said, ‘Will you sign my leg for me?’ (Willis demurred.)  The goalie for the Vegas Golden Knights (Marc-Andre Fleury) has her sign on his helmet. I thought that was pretty cool.”

You can’t miss it, whether you’re coming (“Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada”) or going (“Drive Carefully, Come Back Soon”).  Designed in the futuristic “Googie” architectural style, Willis’ double-sided neon greeter features a horizontal diamond shape inspired by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. logo. Highlighting the design is a symbolic salute to Nevada’s nickname as the Silver State with its white neon circles representing silver dollars, each containing a red letter to spell out “Welcome,” while “Fabulous” is scripted in a blue cursive style. Topping the sign is a flickering, eight-point metal starburst, painted red with yellow neon, and inspired by Disney movies – to promote happiness.

UNLV history professor/historian Hal Rothman, who died in 2007, told The New York Times in 2005 that “it embodies the casual hipness of Las Vegas, nostalgia for the Rat Pack, minus Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.”  Though Willis never copyrighted the design, considering it a “gift to the city,” she did admit to the Times that “I should make a buck out of it. Everybody else does.”  (YESCO – The Young Electric Sign Company, where Willis also toiled—now owns the sign, which it trademarked, and leases to Clark County.)

Even on a recent rain-drizzled weekday afternoon, the visitor line stretched down the parking lot at the median where the sign reigns, now safely ensconced in a small park-like outlet in the Strip’s traffic median, amidst a patch of artificial turf.  (Prior to Clark County transforming it into a more secure tourist area in 2008, visitors dangerously dodged hectic northbound/southbound traffic to reach the sign for photo ops.)

Arriving by the dozens, forming a sea of backpacks, fanny packs and selfie sticks, tourists waited patiently for their chance to ham it up before and around the sign in poses ranging from goofy to triumphant arm-thrusting to the too-cool-for-school/Vegas-baby! variety.

“Part of my dream is to meet people from all over the world and this is where you can do it,” says a street musician dubbed Poppy, an accordion strapped to his chest as he entertains passersby on the slender isle.

During an extended picture-taking session, Chicago natives Joseph Foley and Lindsay Galioto strike vigorous poses that are nearly calisthenics. “I didn’t think there would be this line for it,” says a surprised Galioto, dressed in a “Living the Dream” T-shirt, who executes an Olympic-level leap in front of the sign, as Foley clicks away on his cell phone. “This is going all over social media,” he says. “You’ve got to take a picture by the sign. It’s the No. 1 thing to do here in Vegas.”

That’s all because of a woman whose talents made her one of this city’s lasting ambassadors, though the fame perplexed her. “She was very mild-mannered and low-key, with a really fun, dry sense of humor, but she didn’t understand the fuss when people wanted to interview her,” Holland says. “But there is a sense of legacy about her. She will be immortal.”

Thanks to her, the same can be said of Las Vegas.

To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.

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by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire

by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire