• Image about Brent Blake
By Brent Blake
However outlandish these ideas may sound, Blake has rallied the community behind the lava light, perhaps because it is based on sound economics. In the early to mid-20th century, Soap Lake was the region’s main attraction. The hills, about 180 miles southeast of Seattle, were dotted with hotels, and doctors prescribed for their patients long stays at the town’s sanitoriums because the lake’s water provided relief for conditions such as arthritis, psoriasis, Buerger’s disease and Raynaud’s syndrome. But with the advent of sulfa drugs and penicillin, fewer people came looking for a cure, and then the interstate highways began sweeping tourists away. Today, more than a million people drive 50 miles past Soap Lake to the Grand Coulee Dam instead, where a laser light show coaxes visitors to spend the night.

“You need to find what your city has that no place else does, and just market it until the cows come home,” says Eileen Beckwith, who runs a website (www.soaplakeforlocals.com) with her husband, Burr. “There are other communities that have mineral lakes, but nobody has a giant lava lamp.”

For better or worse, Blake’s first step in building the lava lamp has influenced the project to this day. Instead of drawing up architectural plans, looking for land, getting financial support or even asking the city’s permission, he created posters, created a website and launched a two-year-long marketing campaign that made it seem like the lamp was already operational. Media outlets from the BBC to the Los Angeles Times took notice, and tourists followed. “This went everywhere in the world, and it’s a nonexistent project — it’s just make-believe,” Blake says. “It’s a poster and an idea, but because it was so weird, the media fell in love with it.”

But when the engineering behind the idea proved to be unfeasible, enthusiasm in Soap Lake began to wane. A 65-foot lamp would need glass 12 inches thick at the base, tapering to four inches thick at the top — something that has never been manufactured, let alone transported. “At the time, I don’t think anyone thought it might be hard to have a 20,000-gallon drum of hot oil and wax that would be functional,” says Duane Nycz, a member of one of the longest-residing families in town. “It looked good on the posters.”

Then, the town became cursed with a miracle. Target Corp. not only had a giant, mechanical iron-and-fiberglass lamp hanging in Times Square, but it was also willing to donate the $2 million display to the town and pay the $200,000 shipping costs. The deal seemed too good to be true — and, in many ways, it was. When the 48,000 pounds of iron and fiberglass was unloaded, several parts were in need of repair — and the display was missing the electronic brain that controlled its lava flow motion.