Vintage neon shines a light on the history of this Northwest town

May 5, 2023, 8:45 AM | Updated: 9:51 am

Volunteers in a Northwest town have spent the past decade restoring and re-lighting more than 20 historic neon signs as part of a model project for tourism and economic development.

Pocatello, Idaho is not really in the KIRO Newsradio listening area – it’s about 725 miles and 11 hours by car from Seattle – a full 235 miles east of Boise. But there’s a big event there Friday, May 5, called “Relight the Night,” which will celebrate the power of neon signs to do a whole lot more than just advertise local businesses.

Though it is far away, what volunteers and donors have been doing in Pocatello with neon signs is pretty amazing, and perhaps civic leaders in communities in western Washington will be inspired to do something similar.

It all begins with the Chief Theatre, an old 1930s movie palace in Pocatello that shut down in 1982.

Randy Dixon is in his early 70s. He grew up in Pocatello, seeing movies at that theatre. He sold insurance for a living, and when he retired about a decade ago, it was perfect timing to get involved with saving the Chief Theatre’s giant neon sign.

It’s a bit of a sad story that Dixon shared with KIRO Newsradio earlier this week, but it does have a happy ending – at least as far as the neon is concerned.

After the theatre closed more than 40 years ago, it was donated to the city of Pocatello. The building was fully restored and updated in the late 1980s and actually reopened, but then – in 1993 – the beloved landmark was destroyed by a huge fire. Somehow, the giant sign – with an enormous Indian chief with a headdress in profile atop a stack of huge neon baskets – was saved and put into storage.

Following the fire and demolition of the ruins, where the theatre had stood became, yes, the most cliché of things that can replace any beloved old building: a parking lot. But, out on the sidewalk in front of the parking lot, the city maintained an easement – with the legal ability, Dixon says, to do something amazing with that narrow strip of real estate.

“There was just enough space left to put [the] Chief Theatre sign back up on an architecturally-designed base,” Dixon told KIRO Newsradio. “And we basically placed that sign at the exact location of the Chief Theatre.

“And the marquee sits 50 feet tall, exactly like it did, and in exactly the same location over the sidewalk,” Dixon continued, clearly still excited about the result of his group’s efforts.

And he should be. What Dixon’s group did wasn’t cheap; they raised more than $100,000 nearly 20 years after the fire to restore and reinstall just that one sign. And then, as it turned out, saving “the Chief” became the catalyst for the group — in partnership with a not-for-profit organization called Historic Downtown Pocatello — to keep on raising money to support other businesses who wanted to restore and relight their neon signs there. A decade on, there are more than 20 vintage signs in the core of the city, all of which light up each and every night.

Dixon is expecting hundreds of people to turn out for “Relight the Night.” He says it’s essentially a self-guided walking tour to celebrate the community and civic efforts of the past decade. It all starts at the Chief Theatre sign and runs throughout the downtown core of Pocatello.

Of course, many people love neon. A certain radio historian used to lead neon bus tours for the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and helped collect many local neon signs when he worked there 20 years ago. And, MyNorthwest is certainly no stranger to frequent stories about the big Elephant Car Wash sign, P-I globe, and other local lit landmarks.

It’s a similar kind of love for neon – and for history – that inspired the people of Pocatello. It’s not unlike what Amazon did last year with the smaller Elephant car wash sign – restored after the business went away, put on display near the site of the old business – but on a much, much bigger scale.

And that’s probably at least partly because Dixon takes his love for neon much further than most because he is a true neon-believer.

Dixon sees the colorful old signs as engines for economic and tourism development. He also says those glowing advertisements are a testament to the power of local history to communicate stories about his hometown to the next generation (and the next generation) – using bent glass tubes, electric current, and the magic of Noble gases.

“As long as the historic neon in downtown Pocatello continues to shine brightly every night, the history that surrounds them cannot be forgotten,” Dixon said. “And boy, is that ever the truth.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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