Old Town Pocatello basks in the warm glow of vintage neon as more than a dozen restored signs flicker back to life.
There is something truly comforting about watching the neon signs flicker to life as you wander through historic downtown Pocatello around nightfall. Whether it is the perpetual sprint of the iconic Greyhound, the massive scale of the Hotel Yellowstone, or the watchful eye of the Chief Theatre, the charm of these and many other classic signs is undeniable. Randy Dixon spearheads Relight the Night, an offshoot of the Old Town Pocatello Foundation, to repair, restore, and maintain these signs, ensuring they continue their contribution to the unique sense of place that makes Old Town Pocatello so special.
The neon sign was an advancement of the earlier Geissler tube. Developed in the late 19th century, the Geissler tube similarly used a sealed tube containing a depressurized gas, which with the application of electricity, would glow different colors based on the composition of the gas. The Geissler tube lost pressure relatively quickly, however, limiting its overall applications. With the help of a Geissler tube, William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers discovered neon in 1898. In describing the effect of the electrified neon gas, Travers remarked, “The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget… for nothing in the world gave a glow such as we had seen.”
It is fitting that one of the 16 signs and counting that Relight the Night has helped bring back to life since its inception in 2013 reads ‘The Paris’, as the use of neon lighting was first introduced to the public in 1910 at the Paris Motor Show. Two nearly forty-foot rods of crimson light blazed away in the Grand Palais, igniting the imaginations of Georges Claude and Jacques Fonsèque, leading them to adapt the new technology for use in signage and advertising. They sold their first sign to a fancy barbershop on 14 Boulevarde Montmartre shortly after, and in 1923 they introduced neon signs to the United States by selling a pair of signs to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles.
By the mid-‘20s, technology was developed to combine different gas compositions with various tube coatings to create the palette of nearly 100 colors we see today. Neon is used to produced red, orange, and some very intense pinks, while the rest of the colors you see are produced by argon with a drop of mercury. After this, the technology behind neon signs has remained unchanged for nearly 100 years. Several of these vibrant colors are featured to great effect on the iconic Chief Theatre sign, the first sign the Old Town Pocatello Foundation chose to restore.
Originally opened in 1938, The Chief Theatre’s first film, “The Bad Man of Brimstone”, was delivered by stagecoach. Pocatello residents embraced the theatre immediately, and it hosted more than 4 million patrons over its first ten years of existence. Over time, the theater fell into disrepair, and its parent company opened a multiplex on the other side of town, which was the death knell for the beloved institution. It’s doors closed in 1982, much to the chagrin of many longtime residents.
One such resident was none other than Randy Dixon, who felt called to do something about The Chief. Spurred on by fond memories and the indescribable allure of the marquee, Randy embarked upon quite the quest to reopen the theater. Aided by local advocate for Old Town Pocatello Lee Fawson, Randy was eventually able to broker a deal that involved bigwigs from the Fox and Mann theatre companies, the mayor of Pocatello, and the city council. By 1986 they were able to get the marquee back up and running, but the building remained inoperable. The current board at the time walked away, leaving Randy and the mayor to reorganize The Chief Foundation and rallied the community along with his friends and compatriots in the local theatre scene to carry on the herculean task. Working closely with the fire marshal and city officials, they were able to safely open to the public in 1988. By 1990, The Chief was again at the heart of Pocatello’s thriving arts community, hosting events of all kinds.
Just as it was getting going, however, disaster struck and the theater burned to the ground, leaving only the façade and the sign intact. In removing the sign from the site, nearly every bit neon was damaged, and it lay in storage for 19 years. In 2012, the Old Town Pocatello Foundation formed a committee chaired by Randy to embark upon a 20-year project to save, repair, and maintain neon signs throughout downtown Pocatello, with The Chief sign being their first undertaking. With the help of Idaho Heritage Trust and an enthusiastic group of donors, more than $100,000 was raised to return The Chief to its former glory. When the sign was finally relit on November 29, 2013, close to 4,000 people braved the wintry weather to pay their respects to this cherished landmark.
Since that fateful evening, Relight the Night has worked with local businesses to reignite sixteen different signs, earning a pair of Esto Perpetua awards from The Idaho Historical Society in the process. In addition to the required repairs, they also help with upkeep by installing digital timers on the signs to increase efficiency, conserve power, and reduce wear, tear, and upkeep costs for the owners. Always on the hunt for the next project, you can expect many more signs to flicker back to life in the coming years, starting with the Buster Brown Shoes sign in the spring of 2021.
Though tremendously durable, even neon is not immune to the slow march of time. Once ubiquitous, neon is becoming more and more scarce, as it is replaced by the harsh light of LED screens, making it even more important to save the signs we have before it is too late. The hum of the transformer, the over-the-top brightness, and the craftsmanship of neon cannot be replicated or replaced. Thankfully, these signs can be repaired and maintained, and we are fortunate to have Randy and his compatriots working on our behalf to do just that. With their help, the landscape will remain as vibrant as the people and businesses that populate Old Town Pocatello.
Idaho Heritage Trust is proud to have awarded several grants to different Relight the Night projects over the years. We would like to thank Randy Dixon for his input on this article, as well as volunteering his time to IHT as a regional representative.
Keep up to date on Relight the Night’s progress on their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/rtn.old.town.pocatello/ and learn more about the goings on in Old Town Pocatello at https://www.oldtownpocatello.com/.
Photo provided by Ian Fennell, Idaho State Journal Editor
- Our Work
- Our Story