When I was seven years old, my parents and I embarked on that great American ordeal -- um, that is tradition -- that figures so prominently in the lore of many families, the California Road Trip. Naturally, given my age at the time, I was utterly preoccupied by the mystical siren-song of Disneyland, but we also hit a lot of other attractions along the way, some well-known, some not so much, and a few that were masterpieces of good old-fashioned roadside kitsch. In the latter category, I'm thinking of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum, located on the legendary Mother Road, Route 66, in Victorville, CA. Not that I knew what Route 66 was back in those days. I didn't know what kitsch was either, and I certainly didn't know who Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were. But my parents did -- Roy and Dale were as much a part of my mom and dad's childhoods as Captain Kirk and Spock were to mine -- and they were as giddy as kids themselves when we pulled our 1970 T-Bird into an empty parking lot in what seemed to me like the hottest, most desolate place in the world. (This was years before I visited Phoenix!)
The museum didn't look like much from the outside, merely a plain, warehouse-style building with a tremendous statue of a prancing horse out front. I would soon learn that the statue was of Roy's famous pal Trigger, and its pose mirrored the one exhibit I still clearly remember from our visit to that place: the taxidermied remains of the real Trigger, standing on display like a life-size action figure on a collector's shelf. There were other mounted animals there as well -- Roy's dog Bullet, and Dale's horse Buttermilk -- but it was Trigger that commanded all the attention in the room, even from an ignorant kid like myself.
I remember Dad shaking his head in wonder as he stood in the presence of a cinematic phantasm made real, the same way I did myself last fall when I saw the filming miniature of the Starship Enterprise at the Smithsonian. I also recall Mom lamenting the shabby treatment of Trigger's mane, plucked out by disrespectful idiots for souvenirs. Me, I just thought the whole thing was was weird. I still think it's weird, even now, decades later. (I've often thought, rather irreverently I admit, that Roy should've had Gabby Hayes stuffed as well and standing in the corner for fans to pose with.) However, I've also come to recognize a sort of peculiar charm in the idea of stuffing a famous horse and letting the tourists gawk at him. It's so endearingly... American. Looking back, that dead horse was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
I just learned a few days ago that the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum moved away from Victorville in 2003, relocating to Branson, Missouri, where it struggled along for a few more years before permanently closing at the end of 2009. All of Roy's memorabilia has been auctioned off in the months since, with the final, most significant pieces -- Trigger and Bullet -- being sold two weekends ago. They both went to the same bidder, the owner of a small TV network that still shows re-runs of Roy's old program; the guy apparently intends to set them up in the lobby of his corporate headquarters, which strikes me as a reasonably good home for them. At least they're not going to some landfill somewhere.
My Loyal Readers know, of course, that it's in my nature to mourn the end of eras and the passing of things, especially those to which I claim some kind of personal connection. And in that light, I definitely felt a twinge of sorrow upon learning that this unique and endearing tourist trap -- I call it a tourist trap with the utmost affection, because I happen to like tourist traps -- was no more. But ultimately, even though I fondly remember my visit to the museum, Roy and Dale and their iconic possessions don't mean much more to me now than they did when I was seven. They weren't my heroes or icons, after all; they weren't of my era. While I can respect the artifacts and the meaning they hold for my parents and others, I don't have any great affection for them myself. And this has me thinking somber thoughts about my own heroes and icons.
In his official announcement about the closing of the museum, Roy Rogers, Jr., noted that one of the reasons behind his decision to call it quits was that his "Dad's fans are getting older, and concerned about their retirement funds." This statement struck me as deeply sad, as it crystallized something of which I've been growing more and more aware for several years, namely that pop culture is generational, and it becomes obsolete and fades away as its fans age and then ultimately die off. There are always a handful of anachronistic enthusiasts who keep the faith, but not many, and their numbers shrink as the years pass as well.
Maybe this is something everybody else grokked a long time ago, so banal and obvious that it's not worth talking about, but it's taken me a long, difficult time to reach this epiphany. I've always identified so strongly with the movies, television, and music I enjoyed when I was young. I've worn their names like badges of honor, sometimes literally, in the form of t-shirts or buttons on my Levi jacket when I was in high school. And I haven't outgrown many of them, either, not like my friends who seemed to use up and discard whatever they called themselves fans of, like worn-out underwear. I, on the other hand, have always seemed to just keep on truckin'. Or Trekkin', as the case may be.
I think the difference is that I internalize my fandom more than most of my peers. And by that, I mean I've always constructed much of my self-image around being a fan of certain media. For a long time, I considered my defining characteristic to be my encyclopedic knowledge of the Star Wars movies. My friends even used to call me the Jedi Master -- no, really! At other phases of my life, I was the Trekkie, and the classic-film buff, and the Rick Springfield fan, and the guy who still remembered the names of all those TV detectives we used to watch in middle school. And because I loved those things, and continued to love them across the years, I foolishly allowed myself to believe they were timeless classics that everybody else loved, too, and would still love a century from now. I think that's why all the remakes irritate and even injure me so much: because they drive home with a vicious intensity the truth. Namely that the stuff I love isn't universally admired, that it's day has come and gone. And perhaps, by extension, so has mine.
I first started really feeling this way when the remake of Batttlestar Galactica came along. The harsh criticisms of the original series that arose in the wake of its highly praised do-over completely blindsided me, and stung more than I ever anticipated. Long-time Loyal Readers may recall that I had a running argument with some comment troll for a couple of weeks; the guy just couldn't understand why I was taking his criticism of a 30-year-old TV show so personally. Well, because for me, it was personal. Battlestar, the old one, with its cheesy monkey-in-a-robot-suit and endlessly recycled stock footage, was a part of me. Other people don't seem to get that, or worse, they think it's strange or pitiable. But it is what it is. The snubbing of a show I loved when I was eight hurt me.
And the hits have just kept coming, year after year. The Time Machine. War of the Worlds. The Fog. Clash of the Titans. I can't even remember them all. They even remade the original Star Trek, for god's sake, as near to sacrilege as I think I'm capable of understanding, and the vast majority of people seem to be perfectly fine with it, and many even thought it needed to be done. I've even encountered some serious suggestions that Star Wars, the original Star Wars, would benefit from a "contemporized adaptation." George Lucas seems to agree, given all his revisionist CG tampering.
I know I'm rambling at this point, and I apologize to anyone who's still following this. But this is something that genuinely troubles me.
My father recently told me in a rare moment of introspection that he feared the car culture he has always built his identity around was going to die with his generation, because younger people just don't seem to give a damn about old cars. Not the same way he and his backyard-tinkerer peers do, at least. And anyway, he added, we're probably going to run out of the oil to fuel them before too many more years pass. I couldn't disagree with him. And I know exactly how he feels.
Just as my father looks around his own personal junkyard and sees former treasures fading into unwanted scrap, so I look at all the collectibles I've amassed in my basement and I realize with a sinking heart that even if I get around to having a kid or two, they won't care about all that stuff. it's mine, and mine alone. And it's nothing but crap to whoever follows me.
That's quite a lot to get from a fluff story on a stuffed horse, eh?