Otago Daily Times
Time to get Can’t Stop restarted
CAN’T Stop has been stopped since 2016 and it’s time it got going again! When I compiled a history of Arthur Barnett Ltd in 2003 I discovered that the Arthur Barnett horse was more famous than Phar Lap. The store began using the horse in its advertising in the 1920s after a competition was held to find a store symbol.
A student suggested a horse and called it Can’t Stop. The horse symbol was chosen but a new competition was held to find a name. In spite of five other names being awarded £5 each (about $500 these days) the store decided to stick with the original Can’t Stop. (Canny Arthur Barnett supplied cheques featuring a picture of Lake Wakatipu and suggested that the winners frame them!)
The horse and rider were an instant hit. When the staff dance was held in 1923 the centrepiece of the supper table was a large cake decorated with a representation of Can’t Stop. Arthur Barnett’s Buick Six coupe also boasted on the bonnet a Can’t Stop figurine which is still held by the Barnett family.
After the new store was built in the mid1920s, a static neonlit version of Can’t Stop was put on the highest part of the roof in 1930. The image was part of the store’s advertising and a 1932 Evening Star ad ran: ‘‘JOKING APART. Is there any better fun tonight than joining the crowd at the sign of the big horse and participating in some of Friday night’s advance Christmas gifts, such as Model Jumpers, Cardigans, Blouses, Skirts, and Children’s Coats: 3s l1d.’’
Can’t Stop was 18ft high and 22ft long (5.4m x 6.7m) and dominated the skyline, becoming as much a city symbol as the Statue of Liberty was in New York.
By 1936, a reporter returning from a fishing trip noted that somewhat north of Taieri Mouth, ‘‘a distant glow in the northwest soon resolves itself into strings of pinpoints of lights that climb away from the flat to become attenuated and disappear into the hill suburbs. Dunedin’s predominant Neon sign is plainly visible as it flashes its scarlet slogan, the reassuring words of which are vividly called to mind when the ship heels over and precipitates the unwary observer into a tangle of nets and gear.’’
Can’t Stop was one of the first 40 neon signs in New Zealand and gained even more fame in 1935 when it became the first doublesided activated sign in the country.
During the 1930s the number of radios in Dunedin increased 15fold in just five years and Can’t Stop was blamed for an annoying ‘‘blip blip’’ which interrupted programmes every 15 seconds as the neon lights changed to portray the galloping. Can’t Stop was given a transplant of suppressors to cancel out the blips.
Visitors were taken to vantage points in the Town Belt at night just to see the galloping horse and Dunedin children had Can’t Stop in full flight as one of their abiding memories.
A little girl in the neurosurgical ward at Dunedin Hospital could see the horse at night from her bed during sleepless nights. It was her distress after the horse had not been working for two nights which led to a quick repair job.
Getting a mention (of sorts) in literature is fame confirmed. Paula Boock has the horse in one of her novels.
‘‘Arthur Barnett’s neon horse posted up and down on top of the shop roof like a lobotomised Davy Crockett minus his arms which had shortcircuited.’’
By the 1940s neon signs were plentiful and they even served the Lord. The legendary director of the Methodist Central Mission in the Octagon, Leslie Neale, used neon lighting to spell out a Weekly Message. A New Zealand first, the messages began in June 1940 with, ‘‘In all thy works acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy path.’’
Can’t Stop outlasted the Word of God and even survived the great fire of 1959. Under public pressure, the Dunedin City Council urgently restored power to the ruined building within days of the fire, to ensure that Can’t Stop kept galloping.
That the modern council, which gave planning permission for the Meridian on the condition that Can’t Stop be retained, has allowed the old horse to stop for two years is just not good enough.
Too many neon signs no longer adorn their original spots. Barton’s pigs and Fresh Freddy the fish have gone. In the meantime, the city is blighted with glaring illuminations from hamburger joints, petrol stations and probably brothels as well.
Meridian is working on a solution but a smack on the rump from the city might just do the job. This is election year and it’s time to forget cycleways, bus hubs and bridges to nowhere. The candidate who gets Can’t Stop going again will win the mayoralty in a canter.