In 1996’s Mars Attacks!, mysterious and deadly invaders spread out over Earth, devastating cities across the globe. It’s virtually impossible to confront the threat directly, leaving humanity no choice but to split and scramble for cover. What is this menace? When will the madness stop? On screen, the assailants are barking, big-brained martians. Three of which are currently gathered, laser blasters raised and ready to fire, amid an outdoor boneyard filled with oversized neon signs that formerly advertised hotels and casinos in Las Vegas.
But outside the fences of the roughly 3-acre Neon Museum in downtown Vegas, the actual monster is COVID-19, which has brought the real world to a grinding halt in recent days in an effort to slow the spread of this potentially lethal intruder.
What began as a retrospective exhibition intended to bring the illustrations of eccentric filmmaker Tim Burton to three-dimensional life — in the form of fiberglass figures, metal sculptures and neon tubes — has since developed into a strange instance of life imitating art imitating life: Burton’s creations, partially inspired by eerie visits to Las Vegas as an adolescent, are now on display amongst salvaged signs from a bygone era, at a time when practically all of Vegas has now also gone dark in response to the coronavirus.
“I once stayed at the Aladdin when the casino and restaurant were closed down…I must have been the only one in the whole place,” Burton says, in an artist statement for the project, called Lost Vegas. “I remember staring down the empty hallways, the lights were dim. I felt like I was in The Shining. These strange, dreamlike memories I have of Las Vegas have inspired me artistically throughout my career.”
Growing up in Burbank, Burton remembers spending many a childhood weekend in Vegas, where, “Dad bet on sports and Mom took on the slots with Grandma.” At the former Dunes Hotel and Casino, he would gaze up at the garish seahorses spitting water into the pool.
At the casinos, he encountered beefy armed guards whose job was to keep kids out while the adults gambled, drank, and made merry in the other room. For a young Burton, the experiences were weirdly sad, yet scary. An emotional memory of childhood wrapped in a visceral hallucination.
Burton’s fascination with the imaginative and macabre has since become a trademark over his 30-plus year career as an animator and filmmaker. When he wasn’t releasing dark, quirky movies such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Corpse Bride, Burton was doodling and publishing books like The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, full of morbid poems about Stainboy, Mummy Boy, Robot Boy, The Boy with Nails in His Eyes, and other hybrid misfits he invented.
They’re all here at the Neon Museum. At least, over two dozen sculptures, sketches, and installations have been gathered together for this show; it’s Tim Burton’s first U.S. exhibit in nearly a decade and has so far attracted close to 350,000 people. Some are newer takes on Burton’s existing characters — in one resin and fiberglass tableau brought to life by video projection, Robot Boy engages in a titillating romance with a female slot machine (“He pulled down her lever and she started to holler…”). Other pieces include recreations of props from previous Burton films, such as the arrow-shaped “Betelgeuse” sign and a scale model replica of the Landmark Hotel, whose real-life demolition Burton filmed in 1995, then incorporated the footage in Mars Attacks! the next year.
Burton’s pieces are interspersed throughout the museum, although you often have to look carefully to find them. “It was the goal of Tim Burton and [exhibition curator] Jenny He that the works were like Easter eggs that you have to look for,” says Neon Museum President and CEO Rob McCoy. “He wanted to celebrate these signs of old Vegas as much as he wanted people to see his artwork in the boneyard.”
Some of Burton’s works are easier to spot — like a 20-foot tall, 40-foot wide black grid wall featuring neon UFOs, tendriled aliens, a spiral-eyed girl zapping army tanks, and even a young Tim Burton, staring up in wonder at the Dunes’ giant seahorses. In a shiny, Space Age-style dome that guests can walk through, illustrations of Oyster Boy (who falls in love) and Penguin Boy (who gets sawed in half) come to life through holographic technology on the walls, while a fluorescent carnival of underwater animals dance on a video loop overhead.
Outside, gangly and bloated flies, bees, and mosquitoes hover between signs — “These bugs had something they all could agree on, nothing tastes better than an old piece of neon” cast in Burton’s handwriting — and there are even creatures from an unrealized film project. Assorted pirates are given the mutated Nightmare Before Christmas treatment and fittingly arranged around an enormous, 4-ton pirate skull marquee from Treasure Island.
Another can’t-miss piece is the exhibition’s eponymous Lost Vegas sign tower, a 40-foot tall spade dotted with stars, a nod to both the pointy pylon tower of the former Dunes and the four-pointed stars of the Stardust Resort and Casino.
“After the Lost Vegas sign was created and being set up, Tim stared at it and said something was wrong: All the light bulbs were brand new,” McCoy says. “He said, ‘Somebody get me some Crisco oil and a box of dirt. We’re going to take all the bulbs out and make them look like they’ve been there 50 years.’ It took us roughly two weeks to install the show and often, Tim would be carrying pieces where he wanted them and helping set up.”
The grid wall and sign tower will remain at the Neon Museum indefinitely, although they’re likely the only two Tim Burton pieces that future guests will be able to see in person. Thanks to a recent 30-day moratorium on all nonessential businesses in Las Vegas, the museum is closed from now through the exhibition’s projected closing date of April 12. There have been a few unofficial conversations about the possibility of extending Lost Vegas but nothing has been decided yet. In the meantime, the Neon Museum has kindly made its app free to the public, so folks hoping to catch the show and their collection can at least get a look.
It’s not the grand finale that either Las Vegas or Tim Burton deserves; no Tom Jones to welcome back the falcons, woodpeckers, and wild deer with an impromptu performance of “It’s Not Unusual,” like at the end of Mars Attacks! But there is hope in the cyclical nature of how art influences life and vice versa. Burton’s semi-traumatic experiences in Las Vegas as a child helped shape his vision of the world that he brought to life through cinema and illustration. The Neon Museum continues to give new life to iconic pieces of old Vegas once believed to be gone forever, through collection, preservation, and exhibition. Meanwhile, all of Nevada is attempting to preserve lives by having its hotels, casinos, bars, and businesses go dark — for now. When people eventually trickle back after the closures are reversed, who knows what child might be inspired by the bizarre sight of an empty Vegas to one day create the artwork of tomorrow?
Las Vegas is dead. Long live Las Vegas.
Lost Vegas at the Neon Museum, 770 Las Vegas Blvd. North, downtown Las Vegas. The exhibition and museum is closed to the public until April 16.
However, a digital tour of the museum, including highlights from “Lost Vegas,” is available online at neon museum.app. Enter password: Neon.