S.L. sign firm roams city seeking burned-out bulbsGary Hendricks scans the sea of neon on the Las Vegas Strip. The rainbow-colored signs become a blur as his truck whips past the casinos, but Hendricks still spots the flaw - there's a bulb out in the letter "E."
It's a tiny glitch in this city of lights, but one that will gnaw at Hendricks until it's fixed."People look at a sign and say that looks great. We say not really - that's out, that's out, that's out."
In a city defined by its neon, keeping it lit is quite a chore.
As service manager for Young Electric Sign Co., the largest sign company serving the city's casinos, Hendricks spends his nights and pre-dawn hours patrolling the glitzy Strip and downtown's Glitter Gulch looking for burned-out bulbs.
To the average person, they're hard to spot. But to Hendricks and the 50 other employees in YESCO's service department, the bulbs are as easy to spot as a cheap casino buffet.
"All the neon looks good," Hendricks said while driving past the Palace Station hotel-casino. He leans forward, squints his eyes and scribbles on a notepad.
"But there is a bulb out at Palace Station."
YESCO, which has operations throughout the West, first began designing and lighting casino signs in 1932, a year after gambling was legalized in Las Vegas. Since then, the company has done signs for just about every hotel-casino and many restaurants and businesses.
Hundreds of the old signs were stashed in a sign grave yard until the company began getting rid of them last year. The most prized signs, including a red one from Anderson Dairy, a gold genie lamp from the old Aladdin resort and a cowboy on a horse that once adorned the Hacienda, are now found in a budding neon museum downtown.
Some casinos, such as Mirage Resorts, shun neon altogether.
YESCO is continually being pressed for new designs, such as the giant guitars adorning the Hard Rock Hotel and the nearby Hard Rock Cafe or the new Hilton sign, dubbed as the largest in the world.
Success for YESCO, which now boasts annual sales of $12 million to 15 million, evolves from its solid, principle-oriented business philosophy, said Kirk Brimley, director of public relations for YESCO.
"If the people you're dealing with know you're honorable and trustworthy, it will help your business," Brimley said. "Personal relationships are the base for a strong business. Even with our competitors, our relationships are strong."
Although YESCO's pride and joy are the jobs in Las Vegas, the company has dominated other markets as well. In Salt Lake City, YESCO does four to five times the business of any competitor. Some of their signs include the Wells Fargo and Key Bank buildings downtown and the E Center outdoor information sign.
Since 1932, YESCO has remained a family owned business and has kept its headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Yet its presence in Las Vegas is what made it the largest sign company in the world.
There, the company maintains the 2 million bulbs in the Fremont Street Experience, downtown's $70 million light and sound extravaganza. The lights form nightly shows on a canopy 90 feet high and four blocks long.
Brian Hagedorn watches the light shows every night searching for a slight malfunction in one of the show's computers. If he spies a light not looking quite right or skewing the animated characters a bit, he climbs atop the canopy to fix the problem.
"The whole idea is to have a perfect show," Hendricks said, checking in with Hagedorn one night.
It seems perfect to the spectators, but to Hendricks and Hagedorn, perfect has a different meaning.
"We're almost possessed," said Hendricks, who has been with YESCO for 25 years. "We're not happy until a sign's perfect."
The YESCO employees on sign patrol are trained in rappelling, since they have to climb up and down sides of buildings. They jot down or tape-record notes on which signs are missing bulbs.
Ever wonder why you never see anyone replacing any bulbs?
YESCO employees are out 21 hours a day fixing and replacing bulbs. They spot and fix them so fast that many people don't notice.
"This is advertising," Hendricks said. "How would your feel if you opened up your Sunday paper and half the ad was missing?"
Just how many bulbs is the company in charge of? Who knows?
"The Strip is changing so fast that by the time you got done counting light bulbs, you'd have to turn around and start all over again," said Steve Weeks, assistant division manager for YESCO.
Hendricks also has some rather odd stories about the bulb business.
One casino executive, whom he declined to name, is rather superstitious about luck and burned-out bulbs. If a high-roller is doing well at the tables and a bulb or panel of neon is burned out, he calls YESCO and wants the lights fixed immediately. If the player is doing poorly, the executive might call and request the lights fixed anyway, thinking the player's luck will change.
"They try and tie luck to signs and lighting," Hendricks said.
On this night, after a quick cruise down the Strip and a stop downtown, Hendricks has made notes of the next day's repairs and is prepared to call it a night.
He said he looks forward to climbing into bed and, at least until tomorrow, turning out the lights.