The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign was her never-trademarked gift to her hometown. Las Vegas native, Betty Willis, who died last month at the age of 91, is best-remembered for designing that sign, which has stood in greeting to visitors to Las Vegas at the south end of the Strip since 1959. The sign is recognized world-wide as a symbol of Las Vegas and today is a tourist attraction all its own.
You may be familiar with more of Willis’s work, however. She also designed the iconic sign for the Blue Angel Motel, the Moulin Rouge and the Riviera Hotel. The daughter of Clark County’s first assessor, Willis attended art school in Los Angeles in 1942 and started her graphic arts career drawing ads for Fox West Coast Theaters in the 1940s.
Upon her return to Las Vegas, she worked at the courthouse in Las Vegas as a legal secretary before returning full-time to design in 1952 at Western Neon, where she was working when she designed the “Welcome” sign. She went on to work for Ad Art, and continued her design work, including the sign for the famous Moulin Rouge casino hotel, which she has said was inspired from her love for typography and study of French lettering.
Willis’s Blue Angel sign (located at 2110 Fremont Street), which you are sure to have noticed if you’ve driven down East Fremont Street or East Charleston Boulevard, is also an iconic piece of Las Vegas. Today the 35-foot tall angel still stands heavenly guard over the now dilapidated motel and a Carl’s Jr. The Blue Angel Motel is slated to be bulldozed in 2015 and the motel site will be rebuilt as a shopping plaza, but developer Arnold Stalk has pledged that the Blue Angel will not be touched.
With the impending closure of the Rivera Hotel this month, some fear that the signage Willis designed for this property may be in danger of being lost. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority (LVCVA), the new owner of the Rivera property, however, is working with the Neon Museum to preserve this important piece of Las Vegas history. Final plans for how and where the signage will be preserved are still in the works