The bad news came twice this afternoon in two separate announcements from the - first neon designer and friend of Classic Las Vegas, Brian "Buzz" Leming had died. Not long after that announcement, the Museum posted the news that Buzz's one-time mentor and friend, fellow neon designer, Betty Willis had also passed away.
Betty Willis is, of course, well-known as the designer of as she called it, "the little sign that could", the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign.
Betty also designed a number of signs including the Blue Angel Motel sign (which she said she patterned after the Blue Angel in Walt Disney's classic animated film, Pinocchio, though she took pride in the fact that her version was much bustier), the Moulin Rouge (which the Neon Museum was able to save after a fire destroyed the building), the Normandie Motel, the Del Mar and others. But it was her little sign that welcomed auto bound travelers from Southern California to Las Vegas that everyone remembers most.
Betty was a native Nevadan who was born in Clark County in 1924 while Buzz grew up in Henderson after his parents moved to town when he was five.
Buzz loved growing up in Henderson and recounted stories of long summer days when he and his dog (with his bb rifle) would go out in the desert around the family home and spend all day outside. He was a fireman when he got the idea that he wanted to be a neon designer. When he was 22 years old, heanswered an ad for part-time work because he liked to draw. To his surprise, he was hired. He mentored under Betty Willis for awhile when they both worked at Western Sign. Soon after he was hired by Young Electric Sign and he worked with Jack Larsen, Herman Boernge, Kermit Wayne and Ben Mitchum. He worked with them on the original sign for Caesars Palace and loved to tell the story of the group going to Wonderworld one afternoon and finding Roman centenarians among the toy army soldiers in the kids department. They added the centenarians to their mock-up of the Caesars sign before showing it to Caesars owner, Jay Sarno. Sarno loved the idea and incorporated the Roman centenarians as statues under the sign. The group also worked on the original Aladddin sign and affectionately called it the "ice cream chair".
"We built a model. A great, huge model. The model was about six feet tall. We rented some black light fixtures and we made a big drape drawstring that goes all the way around the model. It was quite a production. The architect at the time kept wanting to see it and we said no, let's wait for Milton Prell to get here. He said "no, I make the decisions here let's take a look at it." So we showed it to him and he said "God, I hate it. That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life."
“So, we shut the drawstring and waited for Milton Prell. Well, Prell came in and the architect said "This isn't what you want." And Milton said "No, I want to see it. Let me take a look at it." So we opened the drawstrings and he said "Oh my God, where do I sign?" And the architect says "You know Milton, I knew you'd love it." (Interview with Brian Leming, 2003).
The sign cost $750,000 to design and fabricate but it was a thing of beauty. Alan Hess wrote, "Yesco's sign was a free-form phantasm incorporating hints of jewelry, veils, magic lamps and fantasy." (Alan Hess, Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture)
Buzz went on to design a host of signs on his own across the Las Vegas Strip but perhaps the sign he was most fond of was one of the first he designed for a small shopping center, the Lawless Center, in North town at the beginning of his career. He as proud of that little sign and even prouder of the fact that sixty years on, the owner still maintained it and kept it lit.
It's ironic that Betty and Buzz, who had done so much to add to the neon skies of Las Vegas, would die over the same weekend. They were colleagues and they were friends.
And their contributions to the skyline of Las Vegas should never be forgotten.
Rest in peace, Buzz Leming and Betty Willis.