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C’MON BABY, LIGHT MY SIGNAGE: As the company that makes the signs that define Vegas to the world, YESCO marks a century of lighting us up

“Bright light city gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire.” — “Viva Las Vegas”

 

Vegas Vicki on Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, 2006. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

Age?  Ageless.

The lady — or Vegas Vicki, as the entire globe knows her — doesn’t look a day over Sexy.

That’s true even when she’s plopped on her curvalicious backside on a warehouse floor — and a temporary amputee, awaiting reattachment surgery on that famously kicky gam, idling beside her.  

Chillax, all you Mr. DeMilles. She’ll be ready for her closeup, when the bodacious, glowing cow-lass who once vamped atop the ex- Glitter Gulch rematerializes in the lobby of the upcoming Circa Resort downtown — all a-glowin’ and a-kickin’ over a three-story atrium — come this December.

There’s no way that YESCO — as in the Young Electric Sign Company, the signage surgeons supervising her techno-touch-ups — allows anything less.

That includes reconstruction of her, um … booty. Permit us to clarify: 
As created by the Ad Art company in 1980, the beauteous babe was originally posed on rocks. Now YESCO is cutting away the rocks and rebuilding her natural hind-quarter charms.

That is just one of the countless, blazingly-lit charms bestowed on Vegas by YESCO, which is based in Salt Lake City but staked its fortunes in our town.

YESCO Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Jeffrey Young is seen at YESCO Friday, January 17, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau)

“So many marvelous, wonderful people worked so hard and labored so many years to build an organization that has stood the test of time,” says YESCO’s Senior Vice President/Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Young — yes, THAT Young, as in the multigenerational owner-clan of the company’s title.  “The core of what we believe, this sense of stewardship and responsibility for the company, is really a strong foundation that we can stand on. How many organizations that were here in 1920 are still here today?”

Doing the math? Then you know that’s 100 years in business — a genuine centennial — dating back to March 20, 1920.  

“If I were standing in front of the city, I would have a hard time choking back the tears. As a family we cannot begin to express the gratitude,” says a reflective Young — he’s Generation No. 3 of the Utah-bred family of signage swamis, with several members of Generation 4 already onboard — at the Las Vegas plant on Cameron Street.

 “The people who built this city from a lonely train stop to what it is today, it is a magnificent representation of what mankind can create if they put their mind to it. And we have been participants, involved in projects that have, in some cases, stood the test of time.”

Try imagining Vegas without YESCO. …  It’s a no-go. Know why? Because Vegas without YESCO is like Santa Claus in a gray flannel suit. By some estimates, YESCO can claim partial or total responsibility for around 80 percent of the stylishly compelling, supernova-bright signage that, by several accounts, transforms nighttime Vegas — particularly the Strip — into the brightest spot on Earth as seen from space.

Hey baby, what’s your sign story? Read on …

Quiz, Local Edition

Which of these Vegas icons is NOT the work of YESCO:

A. Vegas Vic
B. The Hard Rock guitar
C. The original Sahara
D. The Fremont Street Experience and canopy
E. Wynn Las Vegas
F. The Golden Nugget
G. The Boulder Club
H. Bally’s Grand Bazaar Shops
I. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
J. Discovery Children’s Museum
K. Hershey’s Chocolate World
L. Caesars Palace

Phew, we need a breath. Can we get a sip of water? … Gulp. …  OK, onward we go …

M. New York-New York
N. The Huntridge Center
O. Las Vegas City Hall
P. Aria
Q. Linq
R. El Rancho
S. Binion’s Horseshoe
T. Wendover Will (Vegas Vic’s “twin” at the Nevada/Utah border)
U. The Mint
V. The Silver Slipper
W. The Stardust
X. The Venetian’s Astrolab
Y. Allegiant Stadium

Answer: None. GOTCHA.

Quiz, Everywhere Else Edition

Which of these non-Vegas accomplishments were NOT masterminded by YESCO? (We promise, the answer isn’t “none”):

A. The Reno archway
B. El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood
C. The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
D. Snelgrove Ice Cream (featuring a giant rotating ice cream cone) in Salt Lake City
E. Every Motel 6, where they leave those lights on for ya
F. Denver International Airport
G. Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
H. Vee Quiva hotel-casino in Laveen, Arizona
I. Rogers Arena in Edmonton, Alberta
J. Starbucks Corp. headquarters in Seattle
K. Auric Goldfinger’s industrial laser beam aimed at James Bond’s vulnerable spot
L. NBC’s “Message Globe” in New York City’s Rockefeller Center
M. Epcot Center in Orlando; and the Olympics insignia for the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City.

Answer: OK, ya got us. YESCO never threatened 007’s ladies’ man credentials in Goldfinger. And it’s Tom Bodett who leaves all those Motel 6 lights on.  Everything else goes on YESCO’s resume.

(Need a closer inspection. Roam around this link: https://www.yesco.com/company/take-a-tour-back-through-history/)


 

YESCO Creative Director Mark Oatis describes different types of neon lighting at YESCO Friday, January 17, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Takin’ in the Sign Sights
“The adventuresome spirit really pervades every aspect of this place,” says Mark Oatis, creative director of YESCO, whose Vegas plant is a marvel of custom-made craftsmanship — staffed by craftspeople from neon-tubers to metalworkers to designers who take pride in what they largely lack: an assembly-line mentality. 

Metal- and woodworking tools and all manner of machinery loom throughout the warehouses and work rooms (for digital printing, painting, neon glass tubing and other specialty skills) and even near administrative offices.

Allegiant Stadium letters and signage are scattered around — particularly 6-by-10-feet lowercase “A’s.”  Yes, YESCO’s famed for its hubba-hubba Strip stuff. But other signage dotting the premises are projects headed for PT’s Pub, Albertson’s supermarket chain and a Breast Health Services facility, mingling with a Sahara “Desert Wins” sign awaiting a finishing touch, a Park MGM sign lodged on its side for further inspection, and a print schematic for an illuminated slot-machine topper decked out with an electronic screen and a pair of wings. 

 Across the walls are remnants of triumphs past, comprising a kind of casual signage hall of fame: The Wynn’s Allegro restaurant; a Jurassic Park Dino logo from the blockbuster franchise; an oceanic-style Le Reve sign,  letters shaped like sea creatures in a rainbow spectrum of vivid hues;  and attractive  beckonings to San Giorgio shoes and establishments including Pepper Rosie, Cowboy Creole Café and Pizza Capri.

You want it? They’ll make it. And it doesn’t need to light the sky to catch the eye.

“I got a call once and they say, ‘Hey, I got your name from such and such and we want to build a 60-foot Sasquatch in our community. Can you help us?’” Young recalls. “Yes. You want to build a Sasquatch, you actually called the right people.”

How did they become the right people? Let’s do a bit of time-trippin’.

Bright Light History, Abbreviated:

1920:  Eventually dubbed “The Man Who Lit Las Vegas,” Thomas Young Sr.  —  a talented sign-maker who arrived in Ogden, Utah, with his family a decade earlier from the United Kingdom — borrows 300 smackers from his dad, birthing the company that will become YESCO. Initially, they specialize in coffin plates, gold-leaf window lettering and painted advertisements. Young used a camel-hair brush to produce sign boards that merchants purchased for $2 down, and $1 a week.

1931: With the start of construction on the Boulder Dam promising an abundance of cheap electricity for Las Vegas — where gambling casinos were legal — the savvy Young gloms onto the advancing science of sign illumination.

1932: Wasting no time, Young creates an iconic, elaborate piece of signage for Las Vegas’ Boulder Club, depicting a flowing stein of beer — having sketched out his vision on a piece of butcher paper.  That unleashes a creative wave that Young surfs toward a major distinction:  pioneer of neon advertising. 

Tapping an innate business sense, Young further developed a leasing program, making the signs more affordable for new business owners while YESCO retained ownership of equipment.

The timing of his success was beyond fortuitous, says his grandson, Jeff: “Hats off to Tom Senior for having the guts to get a business together and get it growing to survive the Depression.”

1945: Young opens his Las Vegas office, giving our neon empire its own headquarters.

Flash forward 75 years: Today, YESCO has 1,000-plus employees spread across 47 offices in the United States and Canada, plus three manufacturing plants. As estimated by Zoominfo.com, YESCO has in excess of $200 million in annual revenue. 


 

Neon? It made Vegas into Vegas, baby!
Credit neon for its contribution to our style and reputation as much as Frank, Dino, Elvis and Liberace.  LED (light-emitting diode) dominates today, but neon will forever light our legacy.  Our state Legislature recognized that truism in 2019, naming it Nevada’s official “state element.”

Introduced to the world in 1910 at the Paris Motor Show, neon is created by passing electric current, via affixed electrodes, through glass tubing filled with gasses. Glassblowers bend, combine and intertwine those tubes into an amazing array of shapes.

 

El Rancho Vegas’ neon-lit windmill. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

The Glory of the Glow:
How striking they were, their luminous allure flashing across the nighttime Vegas skyline, a visual siren call to gamblers and tourists.  When El Rancho opened in 1941 as the Strip’s first casino, its marquee was topped by a windmill with neon-lit blades. Then there was the storied frontage of The Mint, opening on Fremont Street (then Glitter Gulch) in 1957, but achieving signage glory in 1959, thanks to this:

The neon covered front exterior of The Mint and the marquees for the Fremont and Horseshoe are seen February 7, 1962, on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

With its sleekly curved, 96-foot-high arch, The Mint signage seemed to undulate with color.

Powered by three miles of red neon tubing, its beauty pulsated from thousands of iridescent white bulbs against a fuchsia background.

When switched  on and off in sequential order, it mimicked perpetual motion and was crowned by a six-pointed starburst lit with 200 40-watt incandescent white lamps.

Recognizing it as a masterpiece of the sign-making art, author Tom Wolfe, in his 1965 book of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, cooed over its design, labeling it “Mint Elliptical.”

The Signs of Signage:

  • Wikipedia describes signs thusly: “The main purpose of signs is to communicate, to convey information designed to assist the receiver with decision-making based on the information provided. Alternatively, promotional signage may be designed to persuade receivers of the merits of a given product or service. (The appropriate response to this would be: “Duh.”)
  • “Sign” is derived from the old French word “signe,” which itself stems from the Latin “signum,” as in “an identifying mark, token, indication, symbol, proof, military standard, ensign, signal with an omen, sign from the heavens and constellations.”
  • Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks used signage.
  • In the Middle Ages, much of the population couldn’t read, so pictures and images were substituted.
  • Handy-dandy industry catchphrases: “Electric signs are fireworks with a purpose.” And, “A good sign is the sign of a good business.” Plus, The electric sign turns a storefront into a living salesman.”
  • Signs attracted more gamblers, generating more revenue for more entertainers who demanded bigger signs with brighter letters.
  • Late Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb equipped patrol cars with dual red and blue flashing lights so they wouldn’t be rendered invisible by casino signs.

Stable of Sign-Design Superstars:

Neon sign designers were bona fide artists, working separately and together. YESCO’s roster included:Buzz Leming (Sahara and Rio); Dan Edwards (Circus Circus’ Lucky the Clown); Rudy Crisostomo (Rio column); Hermon Boernge (The Mint and Flamingo); Kermit Wayne (The Mint and Stardust); Jack Larsen Sr. (Silver Slipper); and Pat Denner (Vegas Vic, Wendover Will). Plus, of course, Betty Willis, who designed our invaluable “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign while at the Western Neon company, but also toiled at YESCO, which now owns the sign.

Those Fabulous Celebs and Their Signage Obsessions:

Reportedly, Sammy Davis Jr. so adored his signs that he considered canceling shows if they were not up to his specifications. Charo was bothered by one of hers, featuring an artist’s exaggerated rendering of her “coochie-coochie” visage, which she said made her nose resemble “a pig’s snout.”Rodney Dangerfield was an occasional drop-in visitor at YESCO’s Las Vegas plant, checking on his signs, then shooting hoops with the workers.

Eric Elizondo repairs a piece of neon at YESCO Friday, January 17, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Going, But Never Forgotten

Neon now comprises just a sliver of YESCO’s business, much of which much is devoted to repair of old signs, given that tubes are fragile, and tend to expand and contract when exposed to outdoor elements, rendering them brittle. Mercury vapor inside some tubes can corrode and electricity can badly age neon signs.

Yet neon still makes its home at YESCO, particularly in the glass room. Inside, craftsmen continually work on tubing. Outside, a large display board radiates color like a Crayola box zapped to life, showing off the myriad varieties with names including:  horizon blue, snow white, Pineapple, traffic-light green, seacrest, ultra-blue, super turquoise, veep green, majestic orange, coral pink, aquamarine and neo-ruby.

 

The Wynn Las Vegas hotel-casino is shown on the Strip in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas News Bureau)

LED leads the W-A-Y Today
Why? Because LED signs use less power, last longer, and are easily programmable to swap out messages. Perfect example? Wynn Las Vegas’ now-iconic signage.

At 135 feet tall, it features a 100-foot-high, 50- foot-wide, concave, double-faced LED message center. The WHAM factor? A moving eraser, changing graphics as it goes. “It is so technically complicated, with that eraser in the middle, 60,000 pounds. We’re just ecstatic about that,” Jeff Young says.

The marquee is shown at the Aria hotel-casino on the Strip in Las Vegas on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Not that Wynn is alone in its breathtaking LED capabilities, courtesy of YESCO. Pass the Aria sign lately? Wowser, huh? Height? Careful with your neck muscles, because it’s a towering 250 feet into the wild blue (or black, at night) yonder, blazing with 11 million pixels over 10,000 square feet of LED acreage, running electronic ads across the overpass between Crystals and the Cosmopolitan.

The Palms hotel-casino is shown in Las Vegas on Sunday, April 21, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Or perhaps you’ve motored by the Palms recently? As part of its $690 million facelift, the off-Strip resort now sports a showstopping, 272-foot-tall, LED mesh wall facing the Strip, and covering the entire 79-foot width of the building’s façade.  Neat, no?

You could probably see any of these from, at least, Pacoima.  But YESCO personnel make sure their clients think about more than just grandiosity.

“Architects will provide (clients) a view from up above and get these big, panoramic views of the property,” says Rick Juleen, YESCO’s vice president of business development, who is deeply involved in project negotiations. “But it’s our responsibility to bring it back down to the level of the person in the car, the person walking down the sidewalk, helping them understand that trees in the area might affect sightlines or a future building could be built next door.”

 
Go-Go YESCO
Banish those TV-planted ideas from your head — the Young family dynasty is nothing like the dysfunctional Roy family of HBO’s Succession, or reaching back further, the cutthroat Ewings of Dallas or the dastardly Carringtons of Dynasty.

Nope: Tom Sr. simply carried on until 1969, when he handed operations over to his son, Tom Jr. — who had to earn it. On his first day at YESCO, at age 13, Tom Jr. was handed a broom and told to start sweeping. Then he began climbing (the ranks).  Today — after 78 years at YESCO — Tom Jr. is sorta-retired. And sorta-not.

“He’s 91, retired, but still working,” Jeff Young says. “He was just at one of our executive meetings and he is as ecstatic and vibrant as he’s ever been.”

Tom Young Sr. passed away in 1971. But by that decade, the family succession was in full swing.  Generation No. 3 was drawn into the business, as Michael T. Young (now CEO), Paul Young (now executive vice president) and Jeff Young began their ascents.  And why stop there?

“I caught the bug early on as a little boy coming to Vegas and going down old Fremont Street and the Welcome sign and the Wynn and Aria. It’s been in my blood ever since,” says Generation No. 4 member Nathan Young, YESCO’s general manager of national service.

“It’s humbling and it makes me grateful for my grandfather and great-grandfather and now my father and his brothers. It’s a big responsibility and a big opportunity to carry on for the fifth, the sixth, the seventh and eighth and ninth generation.”

 

Trivia (In Lights)

  • Though it has automated equipment, YESCO still does custom work, which means large-scale boo-boos can happen. As Jeff Young recalls:  One sign made for Transamerica Corp. wound up transposing the letters “S” and “C.” Result: “Trancamerisa.”
  • Employees are deployed for night patrols, conducting hundreds of sightings to spot light outages or signs in disrepair.
  • Service employees dispatched for repair work hold rappelling certification, given that they dangle over buildings hundreds of feet off the ground, with only a protective harness keeping them from a confrontation with gravity.


 

Illuminating Final Thoughts, By Jeff Young, Proud Descendant and Tradition Preservationist

Betty Willis designed the Welcome sign while working at Western Neon but later worked at YESCO, which now owns and maintains the sign. (Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau)

What were your faves from the early days, Jeff?

 “From the ’50s, it has to be the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, it’s endured for so long.  The ’60s has to be The Mint, and in the ’70s, Circus Circus. In the ’80s, I’d have to say the Caesars Palace sign, just because it was the first color system we had with a color matrix electronic system, when computers hit.

People enjoy an evening under the Viva Vision canopy in the Fremont Street Experience on November 21, 2019, in Las Vegas. Featuring 49,299,456 energy-efficient LEDs, the new Viva Vision screen is now seven times brighter with four times the resolution. (Joe Buglewicz/Las Vegas News Bureau)

And the ’90s has to be Fremont Street, because there had been nothing on that scale, ever, it was an immense project, the biggest we’d ever done.”

Why do you think that your family’s work has turned into a legacy unto itself?

“The bankers and the financiers and the construction companies of the world are building wonderful things, but you don’t have to go very far down this street and go to a museum (The Neon Museum) where people are paying money today to go look at relics of signs that endure when the buildings have been gone for decades. That’s just remarkable.”

When do you know when you’ve really succeeded?

“Mike (Young) commented recently that it’s common for our customers to get emotional and cry when the sign gets turned on.  You get the building done, you get the permits in place, get the staff hired, get the lights turned on, and the utilities work.  But when that sign gets turned on — it’s a magical moment because it basically says, ‘We’re in business.’ “

 
P.S.
We’re hoping YESCO’s centennial celebrations include Vegas Vicki — kicky gam reattached, cowgirl frills blazing bright once again — leaping out of a cake.


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

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