Two decades ago, two separate events were taking shape in The Dalles that would together draw some of the largest crowds to The Dalles year after year.
The Mid-Columbia Car Club and the organizers of Neon Nights didn’t know it in 1994 when they got their events rolling, but they were going to make beautiful music — and RPMs — together.
“The car club had done some sort of car show almost every year since it was formed at various venues and various times — Cherry Festival, Bite of the Gorge, Jam by the Dam,” explained Steve Hudson, long-time event organizer. “But in 1994 we were putting all the elements together for Cruise the Gorge.”
In addition to the longstanding car show, the club added a Friday cruise that would some years later become known as the Neon Cruise in honor of the Neon Nights concert that would eventually join it on the second weekend in August.
A cruise lights up
The cruise was different from other such events, which usually limit participants to registered classic cars. This cruise, like those of the 1950s and 1960s teen scene, was open to everyone on wheels. Many of the club members remembered their teens “dragging the gut,” the downtown loop of Second and Third streets and decided to revive the tradition.
The cruise was something of an afterthought, Hudson admitted.
“We thought maybe a couple of people would show up, but everybody showed up,” he said. “For the locals, that was the thing that really got people excited.” Thousands thronged to downtown to see the cars in motion, the way they continue to do today.
The show and cruise have continued to draw around 300 classic cars on average each year.
“It’s always chaos before the show,” Hudson said. “But it’s always funny. Almost always, somebody comes up and says we can’t believe how organized you are, so calm and cool. You guys have really got it together.”
Through the years, the club has had good partnerships with the City of The Dalles and Northern Wasco County Parks and Recreation. The city put on extra patrols for the cruise and the parks district allowed the club to bring exhibiting cars onto the grass and under the trees at a time when other car shows around the country are typically broiling on unshaded asphalt.
“The park is a wonderful venue,” Hudson said. “We get people from all over the Northwest who praise it.”
Another unusual aspect for car shows is the parade of winners at the end of the Show in the Shade where the cars drive up to collect their prizes. Hudson tag-teams the announcing with Jake Grossmiller and the duo keep the cars rolling efficiently.
As the show continued to make money year after year, the car club joined forces with The Dalles Rotary to put those funds to use in community projects.
A concert is born
Meanwhile, Randy Haines, his friends and family were bemoaning the demise of the Jam by the Dam, a popular concert series of the early 1990s put on by the city’s former Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We had always been concert-goers,” Haines said. “When Jam by the Dam left it was a void that needed to be filled. For some reason, my wife and I, and a handful of our friends decided to put something on ourselves.”
Haines said one of their smartest moves was to go talk to Susan Huntington, then-director at The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce. She let them rummage through the basement storage, where old Convention and Visitors Bureau files were stored.
“One of our first clues was all these boxes of T-shirts from Jam by the Dam,” Haines said. “Our first lesson was not to go into the T-shirt business.”
So instead of buying thousands upon thousands of T-shirts to sell, they commissioned local artist Scott McMullen to design a shirt for limited production that they used for marketing
Working with talent buyer Jack Roberts Company out of Bothell, Wash., Haines was able to attract the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for the first concert Sept. 10, 1994. Neon Nights piggybacked on the larger fair circuit in the Northwest, which drew classic rock and country acts. Doing so allowed the event to draw larger, more popular acts that this size of a venue could normally expect.
Next, the organizers pondered what to call this new concert.
“We were sitting in our living room and wanted to come up with a catchy name,” Haines said. They looked at all of their sponsors and tried to come up with some creative tie-in without using the sponsor names. “Urness Motors was one of our first sponsors and that was the year the Neon came out.”
And so Neon Nights began.
Like any live performance, Neon Nights had its share of mishaps.
“At the first show we didn’t know what we were doing,” Haines said. “We were understaffed and we didn’t anticipate the slope of the grounds. Everybody stood on the sidewalk, so you could see the stage on the ground. We learned that night that you can’t please everybody. You’ve just got to do the best you can.”
When Three Dog Night was set to perform, the tour manager looked at the stage set-up and told Haines the drum riser was a little too wobbly and the drum set couldn’t go on it.
“We had to scrounge around for 2-by-1s and C clamps and do the best we could to secure it,” Haines said. “As people were coming out to see Three Dog Night, there was a chance they weren’t going to play.”
But they did play and the tour manager didn’t even check the riser.
“He was just messing with us,” Haines said.
That same concert brought an added bonus, renowned folk singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton joined the performance. He was the author of the band’s best-known song, “Joy to the World.”
Organizers made a miscalculation when they decided to do a two-day event one year with a rock-and-roll concert one night and country the next. They had hoped to draw crowds with different interests to each of the concerts, but didn’t factor in the overlap between crowds, or that people would pick and choose.
“We lost over $17,000 that year,” Haines said. “It took Eddie Money the next year to pay for that show.”
The cruise and the concert started working in tandem in 1996 and the dual events came to be known as the Neon Classic Weekend, though both kept their separate identities. Finding a summer date that worked was a challenge amidst fairs, festivals and other big weekend events. But the second weekend of August provided a slight window.
At first the Dufur Threshing Bee objected to sharing the weekend, but later started its own Sunday car show to capitalize on the crowds in town for the classic cruise.
“It was a nice way to sit back and relax and decompress from the weekend,” Hudson said.
A Sunday drag race in Dallesport was also added for a few years, giving drivers a choice, but the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport found other uses for its runway.
Neon Nights Concerts came to an end in 2007. Haines and his crew quit organizing the event the year before. Haines said the rising local music scene — and bigger local venues like Maryhill Winery — made financing and drawing crowds to the large concerts a more challenging proposition.
Throughout the years, Haines said, the organizers were fortunate they never had to cancel a concert because a band didn’t show up or band members became ill.
Looking back on the experience, Haines said, “It’s gratifying to see something that started basically as nothing grow to become one of the town’s biggest annual events.” Haines is planning a sock hop and dance party Saturday, Aug. 9, at the Eagles Lodge to celebrate the 20-year anniversary. The sock hop starts at 7 p.m. with the dance party band to follow.
Cruise the Gorge continues to draw big crowds of classic cars and spectators year after year. The cruise this year falls on Friday, Aug. 8, starting around 6 p.m. The Show in the Shade is Saturday, Aug. 9, at 9 a.m. The Dufur Threshing Bee car show starts at 9 a.m. at Dufur Park.
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