Chances are you’ve seen her store, even if you’ve never been inside. With its wacky window displays and abundance of light bulbs, Sunlan Lighting has been a fixture on Portland’s N Mississippi Avenue for almost three decades. Tourists come from as far as Tokyo to gaze upon its electric glow, and its owner, Kay “The Lightbulb Lady” Newell is happy to greet them. Well, sort of.
Newell — along with her two sons — sells hundreds of specialty light bulbs to the city of Portland and beyond. She’s also a mainstay of the Mississippi neighborhood, cracking endless jokes about “lighting up” her customers’ lives and helping them “see the light,” all while sharing her encyclopedic knowledge of bulbs. She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind, but that’s all part of the Sunlan experience.
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Two Portlanders were so taken with Newell and her family that they spent three years making a documentary short film about Sunlan. Lou S. Chain and Lisa Petersen filmed “The Sun’s Only Rival” on a shoestring budget.
“Our friend Maggie once said that someone should make a film about the Lightbulb Lady, and we decided that should be us,” Chain said. “We interviewed many Mississippi Street neighbors, Sunlan customers and employees, and of course spent hours with Kay Newell, ‘The Lightbulb Lady.’”
Chain and Petersen were interested not only in Sunlan itself, but also the larger story of Portland it represents. The Mississippi neighborhood has changed drastically over the years, undergoing heavy gentrification and a rising cost of living. Many of the businesses on the street have been forced out due to higher rents, but Sunlan remains.
“As Portland continues to expand and modernize, Sunlan Lighting and the Newells become more and more of a rare glimpse into what once was,” Chain said.
“There is a feature length film somewhere in the footage we collected,” she added. “Who’s up for a good editing project?”
OPB is pleased to present The Sun’s Only Rival as part of the 2016 Oregon Lens Film Festival, which showcases some of the best independent films in the Pacific Northwest.