His colorful headdress and stern visage give Chief Pocatello a decided presence. That he’s made of red, green, blue and yellow neon doesn’t hurt either, nor does his status as an historical and artistic icon.
He once did not shine so brightly, left to gather dust in a warehouse for years, but today the local landmark that once was the Chief Theater’s marquee is shining bright – and inspiring an uncommon public art movement.
“The Chief Theater was one of the most beautiful movie theaters you’ve ever seen,” says Randy Dixon, who helped lead efforts to find and restore the iconic sign, nearly all that remained when the theater burned down in 1993. “We all grew up with that sign, and I saw every cool movie that was shown there.”
Relight the Night
The Old Town Foundation took the lead in bringing Chief Pocatello back to life. Its “Relight the Night” campaign received $110,000 from the city to restore the sign and then raised another $140,000 to maintain it and restore another 15 vintage neon signs. The Chief’s switch was flipped on in May 2014, while 3,000 onlookers applauded.
“We captured the history that was fading away,” Dixon says. “Now people can take their kids and grandkids there and tell them ‘this is where I proposed to Grandma during The Sound of Music,’ that kind of thing.”
While Chief Pocatello is lighting up the night, the city’s First Friday Art Walks are bringing folks downtown for dining, entertainment and a chance to view and buy a broad selection of art displayed in local retail stores.
Still more public art dazzles during the daytime. The Pocatello Arts Council, appointed by the city’s mayor, is an all-volunteer group that fosters local art and artists of all kinds and brings in notable artists from outside the city.
Working with community groups, arts organizations, the city and state, its projects have included installation of a charming Japanese garden at the airport and a new public art installation by artist Ron Lewis at the Old Town Pavilion in May 2014. It has brought Montana Shakespeare in the Parks to town for nine years, catalogued and photographed Pocatello’s public art, and commissioned a number of outdoor sculptures. The council also is commissioning three artists to create travertine benches that will be installed around the city.
Among its most popular projects has been a series of 35 stone pavers in Old Town, celebrating writers with a connection to Pocatello. The markers bear quotations from writers' work that “capture the essence of our town,” says Diana Livingston-Friedley, arts council chairman.
Art, she says, is much more than just a way to beautify Pocatello.
“The arts are especially crucial here because we are so remote,” Livingston-Friedley says. “We need to be able to enliven our community, our lives and our children’s lives with art. They are also crucial for bringing people together, and we get tons of people who volunteer to help. It’s hard work, but it’s very satisfying when you can stand back and see a work of art, or realize that children are seeing something for the first time.”