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'Glitter Gulch' in Las Vegas

Paris may be the City of Light, but the city of lights is the gambling oasis of Las Vegas in the western state of Nevada. Building facades pulsate with millions of lights and glowing neon displays in downtown's casino row called "Glitter Gulch."

Even bigger illuminated signs and animated marquees line the Las Vegas Strip of casino resorts just outside town.

According to Nevada's power company, the electricity needed to illuminate just the outdoor signs on the Las Vegas Strip outside town could power an entire city of 25,000 people.

Half a century ago, the Las Vegas tradition of light spectacles began downtown, and glittering Fremont Street became world-famous. But as the fancy new casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip lured away more and more tourist traffic in the 1970s and '80s, downtown "Vegas" declined into a collection of worn-out casinos and run-down motels.

The city responded five years ago by turning five blocks of downtown into a pedestrian and entertainment mall called the "Fremont Street Experience," covered by a canopy of lightbulbs, in the heart of "Glitter Gulch." "Approximately 2.2 million bulbs make up the overhead canopy" says Rick Hart, a Las Vegas computer graphics artist who has a lot to do with the way those lights play overhead, describes Fremont Street today.

Hart: "There's a white, blue, a red, and a green. Each one has thirty-two levels of intensity. We use numerous computer graphics programs."
Landphair: "Anything like this in the world?"
Hart: "No, this is the only one in the world."

Each nighttime hour through midnight, street lights and casino signs dim, and one of seven different sound and light shows erupts overhead. Rick Hart helped create some of them. In one, the lights and 218 giant speakers, all run by 36 computers, produce images of snorting steers, galloping horses, and virtual cowboys 29 meters above the street as twangy music resounds through downtown.

Hart: "It's country-western songs with [overhead] graphics to go along with it."
Landphair: "Such things as faces and musical instruments, all created and moving."
Hart: "Fully animated."
Landphair: "In fact, figures flying overhead almost, huh?"
Hart: "It's pretty amazing, for me especially, being an artist. I get to see my work on the largest canvas in the world. Television, video, the website, they don't do it justice."

"Bright lights city, gonna set my soul, set my soul on fire.
"Viva, Las Vegas . . ."

Homer King is a foreman for Young Electric Sign Company, which built hundreds of the classic Las Vegas lighted signs and constructed the Fremont Street Experience. People like to call him a "light-bulb changer," Mr. King says, but there's a lot more to keeping the show running as designed.

King: "It's like mixing paint. You only put a teaspoon here, a cup there. We're able to get over a million colors."
Landphair: "The computer says, 'You light right this second.'"
King: "Right. It'll say, 'OK, I want the red bulb on, but I want it at this intensity. Also put the green bulb on at this intensity."

These are not ordinary lightbulbs. Each is engineered to last 25,000 hours. But a few do burn out each night. That's when Mr. King and his crew do in fact become lightbulb changers.

"Neon lights, shimmering neon lights.
"And at the fall of night, this city's made of light. . ."

But a more delicate lighting experience is making a comeback in Las Vegas. Neon, once a staple on casino signs, is an artistic element on the city's two newest high-rise casino hotels: the Rio and the Palms.

And downtown, in an otherwise dusty, empty lot, city cultural specialist Richard Hooker presides over neon treasures from a bygone era. This place is called the "Neon Boneyard" because it is here that some of the city's legendary signs ended up as scrap. Over the next three years, the boneyard will evolve into an open-air neon museum and visitor center, supported by the city and a preservation society. Discarded signs here come from places like Sassy Sally's casino and the famous Horseshoe Club.

"Look over to our right, and you see Alladin's lamp [from the Alladin Resort]. Now, what better talks magic than a genie's lamp? I've gotten lots of calls from people n who are coming out here, and they say they'd like to visit the boneyard because they had honeymooned at the Silver Slipper or something like that. Having these signs in the boneyard, it's a way to tell Las Vegas's history," he says.

Richard Hooker says Las Vegas sign designers are some of the graphic geniuses of the past century. "These signs take on a kind of new role as an emerging public artform, looking at the sign designers as artists, and then looking at the objects as sculptures," he says.

Vegas casino and resort owners just laughed last summer when officials in neighboring California suggested the city might want to dim its lights in the dead of night to help conserve energy for the regional power grid. Their city without lights, Las Vegas responded, would be like Venice without canals, the Alps without snow, or Bali without the sea.