Steamboat Springs Greg Koehler said it’s tough driving into downtown Steamboat Springs after dark this month and seeing the beloved neon rabbit in front of his business suffering from a broken jaw
In the wee hours of Feb. 2, a group of hooligans arrived at the smiling Rabbit Ears Motel sign throwing snowballs and wanting to take a photo of someone atop the piece of history.
They left leaving one of the city’s historic landmarks broken, shattered and hard to repair.
“I just hate it when I drive downtown at night and see that it’s not working,” Koehler said Thursday of the iconic neon sign that has guided tourists to his business since the 1950s. “It isn’t a good feeling.”
Police haven’t been able to identify the people who are suspected of damaging the historic sign and causing up to $2,000 in damage.
But the rabbit is in range of security cameras, and Koehler said a group of six young men waiting for a bus were captured on camera throwing snowballs near the sign around 1:22 a.m. on Feb. 2.
He said one of the men climbed to the very top of the sign for a photo. Other men in the group helped prop the man up.
Koehler said the man ended up breaking the neon glass that makes up the smiling rabbit’s face and also broke the part of the sign spelling “Ears.”
Without telling anyone about the damage, the group hopped on a bus and left.
"They were certainly under the influence, I would say," Koehler said. "I've never seen anyone try to climb it before."
He said the person who climbed on top of the sign was at risk of being electrocuted after they broke the neon glass.
Koehler said it is going to cost $1,500 to $2,000 to fix the sign.
He was hoping to have the rabbit smiling again before this year’s Winter Carnival, but fixing neon isn’t an easy task.
“The problem with neon is it’s 1960s technology, and although it’s still there, it’s becoming a little bit of a dying breed,” Koehler said. “You have to get the glass bent and put together.”
The broken pieces of the sign have to be driven to Denver for repairs. The pieces are too brittle to ship, Koehler said.
When the sign is ready, a lift truck will be called in to fix the rabbit’s smile.
The sign’s history dates back to a time when Steamboat Pilot archives reveal that several downtown businesses decided to “spruce up” their storefronts by adding attractive neon signs.
The summer of 1953, when the sign was built, saw a record number of tourists visiting the town of Steamboat.
Today, the Rabbit Ears Motel sign is listed on Colorado’s register of historic properties.
The application for the designation succinctly describes what makes it special.
“Once considered by some to be a tacky eyesore, the sign survived periods of downtown modernization to become a much beloved local geographic landmark,” the application read. “The sign now transcends its traditional role and has become a community icon.”
The sign has undergone some changes over the years.
It used to be animated and featured a set of rabbit eyes that moved left to right.
But new state legislation in the 1970s prohibited animated signs along state highways, and the rabbit became static.
The sign also had to be moved in the late 1970s when U.S. Highway 40 was widened in downtown Steamboat.
Koehler is working to ensure the sign continues to welcome residents and visitors to Steamboat.
“We’re doing all that we can to preserve it,” Koehler said.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10