LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — To be fair, asking Jeff Young to pick a favorite from all the signs in Las Vegas is a little bit like asking a parent to pick their favorite child.

After a brief introduction and a couple of questions as the phone interview began last week, the Senior Vice President of YESCO — the sign company responsible for Las Vegas productions that range from functional to flashy to elegant works of art — started going through his list. And he didn’t stop until he had named 16 signs.

And it seemed like he had only scratched the surface.

He tried to go in order, starting with the city’s first neon sign (one that his company didn’t even make), but soon he had gone off the rails, jumping ahead to exciting stories of invention and innovation.

Jeff Young, Senior Vice President of YESCO, is in town this week to help launch an exhibit that details his company’s work in Las Vegas. YESCO was founded more than a century ago, and has produced many of the most memorable Las Vegas signs. (Greg Haas / 8NewsNow)

The passion for his company’s work was palpable, and ran through our conversation. He was in his car in Salt Lake City — company headquarters — and he had so many stories to tell as he was preparing to travel to Las Vegas for events to mark the 100-year anniversary of YESCO. Really, it’s 102 years, but the pandemic delayed the celebration. The company’s story goes back to 1920, when his grandfather was just starting the empire that is now inseparable from the history of Las Vegas.

But let’s not go too far before we get to that list. Put back in order of time, here are the signs Young talked about (stories to follow):

  1. The Overland Hotel, the first neon sign in Las Vegas.
  2. The Boulder Club (1932), YESCO’s first big project in Las Vegas.
  3. The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign by Betty Willis.
  4. Vegas Vic — a Las Vegas icon and an engineering marvel.
  5. Stardust — another Las Vegas icon.
  6. The Mint — the favorite of Young’s father.
  7. The massive Circus Circus clown sign.
  8. The Sahara sign — a record-breaking, freestanding marvel.
  9. Caesars Palace — the first color “electronic message center.”
  10. The Rio — an off-Strip spectacle.
  11. The Hard Rock Café guitar, now a company’s identifier.
  12. The Palms — class meets flash.
  13. The Wynn “eraser” — a complex innovation.
  14. Aria — an elegant creation this is YESCO’s own.
  15. Allegiant Stadium — nearly 4,000 signs on one site.
  16. Circa — coming full circle, to the property where the Boulder Club once was.
  17. Las Vegas Gateway Arches — the company’s recently installed arches on the Strip, just north of Sahara Avenue.

Wait … a 17th favorite on the list? Yep, Young had to add one more as he arrived in Las Vegas to help launch “Lighting Up Las Vegas: YESCO Marks a Glittering Century.” It’s an exhibition that’s part of the Nevada Humanities Exhibition Series. Panels depicting YESCO’s history and the numerous neon and electronic signs the company has built over the past 100 years.

A story behind every sign

First on Young’s list is the city’s first neon sign. YESCO didn’t build that one? That’s no reason to keep a sign off Young’s list. He’s aware of the city’s history, and the importance of neon to the identity of Las Vegas. That’s a big reason the Overland Hotel made the list. That’s where neon started in Las Vegas, around 1928-29.

Thomas Young founded the business that would become the Young Electric Sign Company in 1920, hand-painting signs in the early days. Gambling was legalized in Las Vegas in 1931, and Young started doing business here the next year, according to historical information posted on YESCO’s website. One of Thomas Young’s early customers was the Boulder Club, which hired YESCO to renovate its sign. That’s where YESCO established itself as a force in Las Vegas.

In 1945, the Boulder Club hired YESCO to redesign its 1933 sign. The new sign, credited as the first “spectacular,” combined a tower that read “Boulder Club” and “Enjoy the Old West.”
(Photos Courtesy of the LVCVA’s Las Vegas News Bureau Archive) 

The success built around the early prosperity of gambling led the company to set up an office in Las Vegas in 1945.

In the 1950s, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign came on the scene. “We didn’t build it, but we bought the company that did,” Jeff Young said.

Vegas Vic — the friendly cowboy who will always be associated with downtown — has a special place in Young’s heart. “His arms moved. They pivoted for 50 years.” Young still marvels at the engineering of the iconic sign. “To engineer something that moves 24 hours a day for 50 years … we can’t pass that by.”

The Stardust sign was pure Vegas, an example of the glitz that made the city a place you just had to see to believe.

If you want to see how this company made its bones, go to YouTube and search for “The Birth of a Giant” — a 2-part documentary on the making of the sign at The Mint in downtown. The sign was a favorite of Young’s father, who did the filming himself. The creativity and the engineering that set the company apart are on display as YESCO works to finish the front of the casino — much more than a sign, really.

The sign at Circus Circus is more than 50 years old. (Greg Haas / 8NewsNow)

The mammoth creation at Circus Circus — the clown sign that still stands on the Las Vegas Strip more than 50 years later — was a perfect fit. “The sign was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest freestanding sign,” YESCO’s website says.

Another record-breaking sign came next, just up the street in 1980. The freestanding sign at the Sahara was 222 feet tall.

Computers arrive on the scene

And then, a new era started in the world of signs.

“Computers first started coming out, and we put up the first screen,” Young said. That was the electronic message center (EMC) at Caesars Palace. The display was 30 feet in length, with 60-watt dipped bulbs. It was the first color EMC, Young said.

Sandwiched between two off-Strip projects — the popular Rio sign and the Palms sign, both built on Flamingo Road years apart — YESCO created the Hard Rock guitar.

The Hard Rock guitar is now at the Neon Boneyard. (Greg Haas / 8NewsNow)

Young relates the story: In 1991, Warwick Stone, who curates the Hard Rock’s collection of memorabilia, had the idea for the guitar, but he didn’t know how expensive the sign would ultimately be. When YESCO gave him a quote of more than a quarter-million dollars — more than four times what he wanted to spend — it looked like the project might be dead. But YESCO told him they would build it and Hard Rock could lease it back. That arrangement turned out to be important when the casino shut down, as the title went back to YESCO. The company donated the sign to the Neon Museum. The renovation of the sign was crowd-funded.

“It was the first Hard Rock guitar, and it became their signature,” Young said.

The unique — and complex — “eraser” design at Wynn Las Vegas. (Greg Haas / 8NewsNow)

The Wynn “eraser:” A 65,000-pound “eraser” moves up and down a digital display that is 50 feet wide and 100 feet tall. The image changes as the eraser moves over it. “If you look at the sign from the top, it’s a triangle,” Young said. All the digital displays are built at an angle on the wedge-shaped sign. “It’s not one of the tallest, but it’s the most complicated design — maybe in the world,” Young said. The sign’s concept was direct from Steve Wynn. Young said engineers had an incredibly difficult task in the Wynn project, with just 1/4-inch tolerance in the 130-foot structure. It was renovated two years ago.

The sign at the Aria posed a different kind of problem. “The Aria sign is one of the most beautiful, elegant signs,” Young said. He remembers how the $9 billion development “hadn’t contemplated the sign … that’s our design.” Squeezing the sign into the finished design of the resort posed some problems, like fitting one of the legs around a parking garage. The sign is serviced from the inside. It’s 270 feet tall, with a platform on the inside every 10 feet.

And for sheer magnitude, add Allegiant Stadium to Young’s list. YESCO produced nearly 4,000 signs at the stadium. Another company handled the scoreboard.

And the list comes full circle to Circa in downtown Las Vegas. “The reason Circa is so important is because it’s on the property where YESCO had the Boulder Club sign more than 70 years earlier,” Young said. The famous “Vegas Vicki” sign was renovated and placed into Circa before the building was finished. Young said YESCO worked on 40 types of signs for Circa, including the exterior of the hotel. “The curved shape is a huge engineering challenge.”

The new Las Vegas Gateway Arches are a new take on a “welcome” sign for a part of Las Vegas Boulevard that is just starting to see a rebirth. You’ll see them as you drive north on the boulevard from Sahara toward The STRAT.