It's been 20 years since the Chief Theater in Pocatello burned to the ground, but the sign was saved.
Since then there has been a debate about what to do with the sign, but we now have an answer: the sign will be restored.
But what's so important about this sign? What has been the process for getting it restored? What will happen once it's restored? I went looking for those answers.
March 20, 1993 brought the devastating fire that began on the roof and gutted the building. One member of the Relight the Night committee (just a resident at the time) received a phone call from a friend while she was on her way to Boise. She turned around to head back to Pocatello, but also gave immediate instructions to save the sign.
There's a parking lot where the chief theater once stood. The sign, a mosaic tile portion, a few seats, a door and part of the red velvet curtain are among the few precious relics of the theater.
In 1993, I was four years old. I didn't pay attention to this sort of thing, so I've been playing catch-up since I began covering the sign's story. Learning about this piece of Pocatello history has one of the most interesting things I've done so far, and it's allowed me to meet some wonderful people while learning more about it.
I started at the City of Pocatello, with Terri Neu in the Planning Services Division. I learned there that the Chief Theater sign is not the first Old Town Pocatello neon sign that will be restored, nor will it be the last.
While Neu did not speak on camera, she spoke candidly about the work that's been done on other signs in the area, like Molinelli Jewelers, Cafe Chopstick, the Greyhound Bus Depot and the Whitman.
She also showed me the large and heavy plaque that will be put on the base of the support for the sign. It reads:
“The Chief Theater opened on January 5, 1938. Admission to the first show, “Bad Man of Brimstone,” was 49 cents. The downtown landmark provided entertainment until it was closed in 1982. The Chief Foundation began working on refurbishing the building in 1985. On March 20, 1993 a fire gutted the building. All that remains of the Chief Theater is the tile mosaic reassembled on this spot, and the neon sign.”
Looking at old photographs, the Chief Theater sign is one of the largest of the signs. But that also means it's the most expensive.
The Relight the Night committee went before the Historic Preservation Commission after raising a little over $20,000 through fundraisers. However, this amount wouldn't nearly be enough to cover the project. That's where the Standrod Trust came into play. For the history behind this mansion in Pocatello, click here.
The Standrod Trust was specifically put into place when the City of Pocatello sold the Standrod mansion to private owners. They put the money into the trust, saving it for historic preservation.
This brought debate within the Historic Preservation Committee meeting, where some members of the board wanted other things for the money, like the restoration of another piece of Pocatello history: Brady Chapel. As it turns out, there was money enough for both.
The sign will be restored using the most monetarily efficient means possible. That means the bulbs that will be used may be LED lights that look like they are neon lights. The amount allotted is $110,000.
I then spoke with Randy Dixon, the Relight the Night committee chairman. We spoke at length about the history of the Chief Theater
"We think the restoration of that sign is extremely important to the history of this community,” Dixon said. “We're going to move ahead with it."
I then asked him the tough question: What is so important about this sign that you would spend over $100,000 on resurrecting it, compared to what some would consider more practical?
Firstly, he explained the restrictions on the Standrod Trust, where the money could be used only for historic preservation.
Secondly, he explained the history, and how a city's past is an important part of its present and future. Additionally, he explained how lighting this sign is just the first step. There are other signs, like Harrison's Jewelers sign that they would love to see restored as well.
He said not only do the restored signs stick out while you're in Old Town, they stick out from Interstate 15.
“You could actually see the Chief Theater sign from parts of the interstate,” Dixon said.
He said with the restoration of the sign, they could work toward restoring other signs and creating a downtown full of vibrant history and pride in where Pocatello has been, where it is and where it's going.
He added that Pocatello's downtown could even trump Boise's, making Pocatello a destination for
Now, this is all possible.
The Relight the Night committee is excited that the past location of the sign is now the future location. They have identified at least 20 signs in the old town area that have potential for restoration, and they plan on doing their best to make sure it happens.
They'll work with current business owners, the Old Town Pocatello organization and the City of Pocatello to find cost-effective solutions while applying for grants to help fund the restorations.
These words were spoken when the chief theater opened in 1938:
“I was not built merely of marble, mortar and steel, but born with a heart, soul and purpose. I was the creation of a mentality on fire; the product of a dreamer. I was a reality loved into life.”
Now, the same can be said for the Chief Theater sign and those who have been working to get it restored.
“Boy, it was beautiful in its day,” Dixon reminisced.
And it will be once again.