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The Best and Brightest

A small museum illuminates Las Vegas' past by restoring the city's classic neon signs

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But the museum keeps most of its finds in outdoor lots called the Boneyard. It's a maze of faded letters, some as big as houses, as well as 3-D pieces, such as the crown from the Royal Nevada Hotel, its puff of fiberglass velvet dented and drab, and a giant high-heeled shoe that once sparkled with a thousand incandescent bulbs. When the Tropicana sign arrives, Romano and Alvarez debate where to put it.

"By Aladdin’s Lamp," Romano says. "To create some drama in that area."

"You could put it over by the Jackpot," says Alvarez, referring to a large sign from the Jackpot Motel, "although that might be a lot of blue."

"We could move the tam," Romano says, pointing to a Chevy-size beret in a green-and-black plaid, from the Tam O’Shanter Motel. Alvarez agrees. While a co-worker climbs gingerly onto the tam and attaches a cable, Donlon looks around the Boneyard. “I’ve blown up some of these signs,” he says. “I set the explosives on top of the Dunes sign when they imploded the hotel.” The Dunes, a landmark razed during the 1990s development boom, had a distinctive minaret-shaped sign.

Alvarez looks pained. “That sign was fully restored!” he exclaims.

“Yep,” Donlon says genially. “We tipped it right over. It was cool.”

“I watched that implosion with my mother,” Alvarez says. “We were wearing black—we were in mourning—and my mother was crying. She said, ‘Your father and I tried to rekindle our love at that hotel.’”

After the crane deposits the tam in its new spot, it hoists the Tropicana Mobil Park sign from the flatbed. The crew guides it with straps as if walking a balloon in the Macy’s parade. Up close, the sign is much more imposing than it was on the avenue.

Their work done, the sign guys pull out of the lot. Romano shuts the chain-link fence and locks it. With his cellphone, Alvarez snaps a photo of the sign through the fence. He gives it a little wave. “Welcome home,” he says.

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