If the tunnel leads to Nevada where all good, hopeful, new and better things are possible, then the light most certainly comes from flickering neon.
This luminous symbol of the glitz and glamor, guts and glory of Nevada is the subject of the book “Neon Nevada,” by husband and wife neon enthusiasts Peter Laufer and Sheila Swan. This effort is not a new one for the couple, rather it represents the continuation of a lifelong passion.
“We realized shortly after we met shared a fascination with neon,” said Laufer, adding that he and Swan met in Silver City and married in 1974. “We both were intrigued with it as an art form, as a manifestestion of popular culture, something that uniquely influences Nevada’s culture.”
And what exactly is that culture?
“Nevada culture is so difficult to define,” Laufer continued. “Is it the perceived sleaze of legal prostitution and gambling? Is it the gorgeous reach of the Great Basin and our equisite mountains? ... All of these are examples of what makes the millieu of Nevada. That neon glow especially on a clear, wintry Nevada night, that neon glow bridges everything that is Nevada.”
Written in the style of a travel journal, Laufer, a longtime Nevada newsman and now a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, and Swan have made three journeys around Nevada in search of neon relics. Swan said the first trip was an unplanned search for neon; the second, in the early 1990s, was a more organized hunt; and the third, made in 2010, was an attempt to find what has become a disappearing element of Nevada’s landscape.
“I try not to dwell on that,” Swan said of neon’s replacement by cheaper plastic on the state’s signage.
Through their words and photographs, taken over a span of more than 30 years though all of equal quality and beauty, the reader gets to hop in the back seat and follow Laufer’s and Swan’s exploration across the Silver State. The book’s pages are dominated by the images of neon signs — some of which still can be found, many of which are now gone — with just enough words to keep the reader’s attention, similar to a driver telling a story that is only interesting as long as the subject can be seen out the car window at 60 mph.
According to the couple’s research, the science behind neon signs was developed in Paris on 1910 as an alternative to incandescent light. In 1923, a car dealer from Los Angeles was inspired by the lighting when he saw it while on vacation and brought it home to his showroom. The neon sign was a hit and began its march across the United States.
The book contains a photograph of the earliest known appearance of neon in Nevada in the window of People’s Market in Las Vegas in 1928. It didn’t take long for neon to catch on as a way to attract travelers to casinos and, in true Nevada style, the signs became bigger and fancier so as to outdo the competition.
In the epilogue, Swan and Laufer are optimistic about the survival of neon as both a form advertising and an art form in Nevada. That enthusiasm is tempered, however, by the fact that neon now has a museum of its own, indicating that while it has a following it also is a thing of the past.
The book ends thus: “Whether a waving giant cowboy, an undulating casino wall alive with red and orange luminous stripes, and a flying blue pig are considered art is — as always — in the eye of the beholder, but there is no question these neon creations command attention. In our society, that alone guarantees the survival of the genre.”
“Neon Nevada” can be found on Amazon and at bookstores in the Reno area.