Neon Museum Oral Histories

Kent Carmichael | Sign Man

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If there is a person in the Las Vegas sign industry who has seen and done it all, it is Kent Carmichael.

In the late 1950s, Kent went to work for YESCO. Kent and designer Ray Larsen, Sr. fabricated an enormous fiberglass Scottish hat for the Tam O’Shanter Motel. Today the sign is preserved at The Neon Museum.

In 1959, Kent became an electrician for Western Neon, where met designer Betty Willis and worked on the crew that installed her Welcome to Fabulous Vegas sign.

In the early 1960s, Kent took a job as an electrician for the Fremont Hotel. Kent was working from a catwalk above the showroom stage when an electrical shock sent him crashing down into the middle of teenage Wayne Newton’s act.

From 1968 to 1975, Kent was a service man and manager for AD-ART, A California sign company then shaking up the scene in Las Vegas. Kent installed the Caesars sign, climbed the Frontier pylon with a young baccarat dealer named Steve Wynn, secured the wobbly stars atop the Stardust sign, and put Elvis’ name in lights for his debut appearance at the International Hotel.

In 1975, Kent joined Heath and Co., where he befriended designer Raul Rodriguez and helped make his fanciful Flamingo sign a reality.

After leaving Heath in 1985, Kent worked for a variety of companies before retiring. In 1992, he reunited with his Burbank High School prom date, actress Debbie Reynolds, who hired Kent as an electrical engineer for her new hotel.

A Fabulous Beginning

Kent’s fascination with electric signs began while he was growing up in Burbank, California. A neighborhood sign maker invited him to watch as he turned the power on a 15,000-volt transformer and created an enormous flash, literally sparking the wide-eyed boy’s interest. Doc and Judy Bayley brought Kent to Las Vegas in 1957 to operate the showroom lights for the Hacienda Hotel. At that time, the Strip was still a two-lane highway.

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Bringing the Vision to Life

Sign designers furnished artistic vision, but sign workers such as Kent supplied the practical know how to make the vision succeed. When Kent was production and sales manager for Heath and Co. in the 1970s, he became friends with designer Raul Rodriguez. Rodriguez was developing his soon-to-be- famous “goblet of feathers” signage for the Flamingo Hotel. The fabrication of the actual sign required consultation with an aeronautical engineer.

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A Dangerous Job

Building and maintaining signs that might stand over 180 feet tall was a risky occupation. Workers could and did fall. Prior to the creation of OSHA in 1971, sign workers were not issued safety equipment. Kent had to purchase his own safety belt. Even after the OSHA was established, safety enforcement went no farther than inspectors were willing to climb.

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A Sign Man Can

The knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for Kent to work make his job difficult to categorize. Kent simply calls himself a sign man. A sign man must be technically qualified, but they must also be tough, resourceful, and fearless. A sign man must be able to work fast, using both hands, edging perilously close to high voltage, standing 100 feet off the ground, while enduring 110-degree heat. 

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This program is funded in part by Nevada Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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