Legacy in Lights: Prolific sign designer’s lasting impact on Las Vegas

Published: Oct. 28, 2022 at 7:02 AM PDT
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - The bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip are known around the world. As the city has grown and changed over the decades, so too have its iconic illuminated casino signs.

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, which works to preserve signs no longer in use as pieces of artistic and historical importance, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this October.

“A lot of other towns they keep a lot of their older buildings around but as you know, Las Vegas is very notorious for demolishing and imploding buildings… so sometimes these signs are really the only pieces left,” said Emily Fellmer, Collections Manager at the Neon Museum.

Now for the first time, they are sharing how some of the city’s most famous signs came to be through an exclusive collection.

The family of late artist and prolific sign designer Charles Bernard donated his original sketches and pictures to the museum who recently shared them with the public for the first time via Zoom.

“His mother would actually encourage him to draw in church to keep him occupied and not distract his sibling,” explained Fellmer of a young Bernard.

A WWII and Korean War army vet, Bernard lived in Stockton, California home of Ad Art signs some 500 miles from Vegas, the city whose skyline he would help to define.

Ad Art signs, fabricated in Stockton, had to be broken down in sections and trucked in from California.

“1967: Ad Art created the tallest sign in the world at the time,” Fellmer shared while showing a picture of the Frontier Casino sign. The 184 tall glittering tower was the concept of Bernard for the property owned by Howard Hughes, one of the then richest and most influential men in the world.

Bernard also created the model of the next Ad Art masterpiece. The Stardust sign climbed four feet higher just a year later in the location where the Strip’s newest multibillion dollar mega casino, Resorts World, now stands.

“Vegas Vickie was another Charles Bernard design,” Fellmer shared. You will even find his signature on the bottom of her boot. Vegas Vickie sat atop the Glitter Gulch Casino when it opened in 1980 across from her boyfriend Vegas Vic but the character of Vegas Vickie dates back to the 1950s.

Fellmer showed a black and white photo and stated, “You will notice a beautiful lady wearing a belt that says Vegas Vickie. She was actually a hostess for the Pioneer Club.”

Vickie came to life in neon at the hands of skilled artists who fabricated and painted her without the help of computers.

“A lot of these sign designers were true artists,” Fellmer asserted.

Vegas Vickie got a refresh before she became the center piece of Circa in 2020. Vegas’s darling now has her own look-a-like contest, even her own blonde beer.

The Plaza casino sign was also a Bernard creation. Bernard also played a role in the signs at the Mirage and the lettering that still stands at the Golden Nugget. Bernard even had the original concept for a towering, illuminated skyscraper he called Vegas World.

“It still stands today as the Stratosphere,” Fellmer revealed.

Through lens of Bernard, over four decades the city came to look much brighter. The mastermind behind the design of Vegas icons like Vegas Vickie and the Plaza, signs that outlived their designer, he has left a legacy in lights and helped define a style that is part of Las Vegas’ distinctive history and it’s glowing future.