The ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign is as famous as the city itself. In just five words, it conveys excitement, revelry, debauchery. It’s everything great design should be.
The woman who created that iconic sign was Betty Whitehead Willis, who died earlier this week. Born in Overton, Nev., in 1924, she was 91 years old, according to an obituary published on the website of a local Nevada mortuary.
Willis went to art school in Pasadena, Calif., worked at signage company YESCO and then later at neon custom-sign building company Western Neon. It was there that she designed the ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign, which, in 1959, cost $4,000 to build and erect.
The famous piece of neon signage is located on the Las Vegas strip just to South of Russell Road. On the back of the sign, the words “Drive Carefully” and “Come Back Soon” say goodbye to visitors.
At the time that Willis was working in the iconic neon sign industry, she was a woman in a sea of men, according to The Neon Museum, a nonprofit that collects and displays Las Vegas signs.
In addition to designing the Vegas sign, Willis’s neon pieces of design, which sit squarely at the intersection of art and commerce, adorn the Moulin Rouge, the Blue Angel Motel, the City Center Motel, the Normandie, Bow and Arrow Motel, Del Mar Motel and the Riviera pylon.
Willis took the Neon Museum tour on her 90th birthday to spin by her work.