Gaudy? Garish? Gorgeous!

Neon signs have found a growing, glowing place in our hearts.

Scientists classify neon as one of the inert, or "noble," gases. They're only half right. Inert? I don't think so. Noble? Definitely—and if you want to see just how noble, go to Las Vegas.

On any given day there you can ride a roller coaster around and through the skyline of New York City, glide in a gondola on a beautifully crafted and comfortably air-conditioned Venetian canal, gawk at a volcano erupting beside a city street, stroll through the Liberace Museum, or observe a thunderous sea battle between some hapless buccaneers and the winsome Sirens of Treasure Island, who fire a mean cannon and dance a mean go-go. When you're tired of hurly-burly, you can play one of the slot machines that are alwaysalways—close at hand, get married in any of a dozen diminutive white wedding chapels, and sleep in a black glass pyramid topped with a beacon said to be visible from outer space.

Or you can just get blown away—as I was recently—by the neon.

The technology behind a neon sign is simple: You pump the air out of a glass tube and fill it with neon or argon gas. When you send electricity through it, the gas glows. In other words, it's magic. And nowhere on earth is that magic performed more brilliantly than in Las Vegas.

Even at midnight, there are stretches of the world-famous Strip where the lightruby! topaz! emerald!—is so bright you can feel your pupils constricting. And it's even better on downtown's historic Fremont Street, where the concentration of neon extravaganzas shows why this thoroughfare is known as Glitter Gulch. The lights blaze and blossom in every conceivable patternstars! rainbows! waterfalls!—while the huge neon cowpoke nicknamed Vegas Vic gives everyone the same friendly wave he's been offering since 1951. Down the street at an entertainment complex called Neonopolis ("city of neon"—is that a great address or what?), a huge column is decked with vintage signs touting everything from a liquor store to Red Goose Shoes. It all adds up to an exhilarating dose of nostalgia, spectacle, and art.

Neon's golden age came in the 1940s and '50s. It didn't last long: Within a short time, backlit plastic signs—cheaper and easier to manufacture—began to make neon obsolete. Few preservationists mourned its passing, equating the noble gas with strip malls and motels and drive-ins and everything else that was flashy and bad and too new to be historic. Happily, most of us have come to our senses, and now groups from coast to coast are fighting to keep those gas-filled tubes aglow.

In Las Vegas, the Neon Museum has conducted a first-of-its-kind Neon Sign Survey "to capture the artistic and historical significance of one of Las Vegas's most well-known art forms." The museum has already restored several signs, ranging from a colossal horse and rider created in 1967 to a modest Wedding Information sign from the 1940s, and installed them in outdoor galleries on Fremont Street. An extensive collection of rescued signs awaits restoration at a storage area known as the Boneyard—a place that must combine the best features of the Louvre and the La Brea Tar Pits.

Similar efforts are under way elsewhere. In Los Angeles, the Museum of Neon Art conducts nighttime neon tours and showcases the work of contemporary neon artists. And in cities from Miami Beach to Albuquerque, more residents are cherishing the historic signs that cast their glow across older neighborhoods.

In her memoir Anybody Can Do Anything, author Betty MacDonald describes the thrill of seeing neon signs for the first time in 1931: "In place of dumpy little bulbs sputteringly spelling out Café or Theatre, there were long swooping spirals of pure brilliant color. A waiter outlined in bright red with a blazing white napkin over his arm flashed on and off. … How gay and cheerful and prosperous and alive everything looked."

Today, the novelty may be gone, but the thrill isn't. We've let too much of America's gloriously gaudy neon go dark—but praise the Lord, it seems we've finally seen the light.  

Read more about neon and Portland's new historic district

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