Hunting Neon In Rural And Urban Nevada

Apr 17, 2019

Nevada’s urban hubs and hidden rural pockets have long been dotted with neon signs. Authors Peter Laufer and Sheila Laufer used to live in Silver City and have crisscrossed Nevada three times over 40 years, hunting that neon. Their book, Neon Nevada, captures the changing story of neon across the region with colorful images and detailed narratives. Holly Hutchings caught up with them to learn about what they saw on their nocturnal quests.

The married researching duo bring their talents as journalist and photographer to a decades-long project documenting the state’s neon. Peter has covered everything from wars to immigration in his journalistic career, and Sheila has told visual stories for decades, yet the tale of neon captivated them to the point of taking three statewide journeys to cover it.

Peter and Sheila met in Nevada and were married by the Carson River. The state holds special meaning to the couple, who now live in Oregon. In the early 70’s, they obtained a couple of signs for themselves, which they displayed in their Silver City, Nevada home. One was a red heart and the other simply said the word “neon” in pink, cursive-looking script. The signs made them reflect on the changes happening to the landscape around them. After reminiscing about some of their favorites, they knew they could not obtain them all to hang in their home. They decided to, instead, crisscross the state to capture them on film.

They set out on their first trip in the 70’s. There were no catalogues to show the way or internet to guide them to businesses off the main road. They just started looking, asking local townspeople and merchants, and hoping word of mouth would lead them to treasures.

Wendover Will greets travelers zipping along Interstate 80 near the Utah border. His 63-foot tall stature is lined in 1,184 feet of neon tubing. He still welcomes people to the small town of Wendover today.
Credit Peter and Sheila Laufer

They said Elko was basically a living neon museum. A sign crafted in the shape of a stout man named Shorty hung outside a bar bearing the same name. The sign was different from so many others and exuded a welcoming atmosphere to his building.

“It’s not like the rest of the signs. It’s a caricature of a funny-looking guy,” Sheila said. “It is a caricature of him, that’s what’s intriguing. It was made to be Shorty,” Peter said. “Shorty in Shorty’s sign is wearing a fedora, which is remarkable, in part, because it’s not brown or black. He’s got this wide technicolor smile. His eyes make it look as if he’s seen a lot in his saloon.”

Their first trip led to two more over the course of the next 40 years. They went back in the 90’s to document changes that had occurred since visit number one, and again in 2010. The second pass left them wanting for some of their favorites that had come down since they’d last seen them.

"Going back to places that have been intriguing to us, and even works of art, and seeing them gone made us feel that the earlier trips were worthwhile because we had documented these pieces of Nevada history that had disappeared,” Peter said.

Another sign the pair loved and wanted to keep track of was the glowing shape of a seductive woman, bathing in a martini glass at the Sandpiper Lodge in Elko - Peter’s favorite sign. “She” was there on their first trip, but on their subsequent visits they were saddened to see that she was now only a memory.

“She disappeared completely,” Sheila said. “Some people remembered it, but no one could tell us what happened. We had a lot of postcards of her. She was gone and her tawdry curtain was gone, too.”

A truck stop sign in Winnemucca used to attract drivers and tired travelers with its vibrance. It's now unlit and weathered.
Credit Peter and Sheila Laufer

And although more neon had disappeared by their third trip, they also saw a revival as new signs were hanging and preservation of older ones was rising. In Winnemucca, the Union 76 Truck Stop sign that clearly once beamed brightly, attracting travelers to come fuel up and take a rest, still hung high, but it was unlit, looking weathered and sad. However, up the road near the newer freeway in that town, a business had incorporated neon into its sign at The Flying Pig restaurant. 

“The Flying Pig showed up because of this renewed appreciation of neon,” Peter said.

Their journeys are documented in Neon Nevada as an ode to this fading tradition. They photographed multiple shots of close to 100 signs during their travels.

Take a road trip through Neon Nevada here with an interactive map created by digital student reporter Lauren Bain.