There were many adventures to be had as a “Traveling Troubadour”. Hailing from Fort Lee, New Jersey (known as “The Silent Motion Picture Capital of the World” in the early 1900’s), my ukulele-playing sidekick and I were a song-and-comedy team appropriately called “The Hometown Boys”, specializing in wholesome entertainment of yesteryear as a Vaudevillian duo (Vaudeville meaning “Song of the Town”).
It was occasionally speculated that we had been locked in a trunk of moth balls during the silent movie hey-days in the beginning of the 20th century and preserved for posterity, only to reappear some 75 years later on the Hollywood scene after passing through some sort of a time warp tunnel. In reality our destiny was divinely directed, being summoned by an inner voice that had told me to “go to the eye of the camera, and touch hearts.” So we hit the road, heading west like the Fort Lee picture pioneers before us, as “Ambassadors of Goodwill” and “The Entertainers’ Entertainers”!
On our appointed mission, we were privileged to enlighten the hearts and lift the spirits of countless people from all walks of life across the country, including notable world famous figures, those golden gals and guys of the historical, political, sports and show biz elite. We also had the opportunity to appear on various radio and television broadcasts and stage productions in Hollywood, Los Angles, Las Vegas, New York City, Atlantic City, and elsewhere.
But out of all the hundreds of earthbound celebrity stars for whom we performed, there was one who flew high above and beyond the crowd in his celestial futuristic vision. It was none other than the legendary “Great Bird of the Galaxy” and “The Master of Strange Space Encounters”, Eugene “Gene” Wesley Roddenberry, the creator, producer, and Galactic Emperor of the Star Trek Enterprise!
Roddenberry was an American television screenwriter, possessing the gifts of both creativity and perseverance. Born in El Paso, Texas, he was a Baptist by birth but a Futurist and Humanist by choice. He received many acclaims from his fellow humanoids including an Emmy Award for Excellence, The Humanist Arts Award, and inductions into both the Academy of Television Hall of Fame and Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He was also the first writer honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
During World War II, Rodenberry was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in the United Stated Air Corps in which he piloted 89 combat missions. Even after the war ended, he still never could take his eye off the sky or shake his childhood affinity for gazing up into the heavens with wonder. Thus he remained in the aviation field as a commercial pilot in the peacetime years. Afterward, he followed in his father’s footsteps and signed on as an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, which brought him back down to ground level from his lofty undertakings.
In his law enforcement job, he learned to appreciate the daily human interest stories and became accustomed to witnessing the darker side of life in the criminal activity he encountered. Being a prolific author, he was like a bloodhound with an unquenchable thirst for a story line, using his own experiences enhanced by his over-active imagination to develop submissions for Hollywood television studios. Over the course of five decades, he produced volumes of successful dramatic material as a screenwriter. His main forte was insightful crime shows and westerns such as The Lieutenant, Highway Patrol, Dragnet, Gun Smoke, Bat Masterson, and Have Gun –Will Travel, etc.
However, he’s best remembered for his signature Star Trek science fiction series, which involved the premise of human interstellar star-fleet travel. It was something of a smorgasbord of his life’s work manifesting itself as a star-studded western and an interplanetary police adventure combined! In fact, the working title had been Wagon Train to the Stars. In a twist of fate, the show debuted on September 8, 1966. Initially produced by Desilu and then by Paramount Television, it aired until June 3, 1969, just prior to the greatest astronavigation achievement event in the history of mankind: Man’s first the moon landing on July 20, 1969!
Although initially unsuccessful, the Star Trek franchise became universally popularized through TV re-runs, follow-up movies, video games, and even an animated spin-off version. Five decades after its first release, its marketing empire has reached its zenith and cultivated a cult of incalculable “Trekkies”. The 79 original episodes spawned a new interest in and desire for space exploration programs, and television audiences and movie-goers alike can thank Roddenberry for helping inspire later sci-fi productions including the campy Lost in Space and the popular culture extravaganza Star Wars. Roddenberry’s imaginative and innovative ideas also sparked real rocket-powered-shuttle enthusiasm for authentic interplanetary exploration at NASA.
Our counter-cultural paths crossed on July 17, 1982. It was a picture perfect postcard after-noon, sunny and 85 degrees with a beautiful blue canopy sky and large ship-like white puffed clouds floating by. We were at a good old fashioned barbecue, picnic, horse shoe throwing, hay-riding, barn dancing event called “The Glenbrook Days” which was held on the picturesque, rustic, rock-laden shores of “The Emerald Jewel,” Lake Tahoe, Nevada. This prime location was nestled among the Ponderosa Pines and sits at the foot of the Sierras near where the Bonanza western series was filmed. All in all, it was a natural habitat for “The Great Bird” to touch down!
We had our “Memorabilia Mobile” on display for the passing picnic-ers to view. It was a two toned green-and-white V.W. camper fully equipped with loud speakers, sirens, and ahooga horns on its roof. There was also a flashing blue policeman/fireman light on the dashboard and 6 foot long steer horns above the front windshield. It was a one of a kind, uniquely designed updated covered wagon, rolling Vaudeville steamer trunk, and primitive version of an obsolete rocket ship, with all the bells and whistles!
The exterior completely covered on all sides with assorted signs and license plates from around the country, guaranteed to attract the attention of onlookers of all ages. The interior was a chock-full collage of postcards, old photos, badges, medals, pennants, historical artifacts, and other various memorabilia items pasted on practically every square inch, thus making it a virtual international and historical tour on wheels.
We even had a section reserved for celebrity keepsakes and famous personal trademark items of some of those that we had entertained: George Burns’ (a.k.a. Oh, God’s) signed cigar in a glass tube; Willy Nelson’s (The King of Country Twang’s) familiar red bandana; Sir Elton John’s (Off his Royal Rocker’s) weird black and white shades; and a golf ball signed by the foremost pro Arnold Palmer (Prince of Putts), etc., etc. Containing a little piece of everything from everywhere, the van was featured on shows like P.M. magazine, and frequently photographed for publication.
Hence, on that sunny day on the shores of Tahoe, we were exhibiting our Franken-Wheeler Creation to the curious crowds when a stylish middle-aged couple in western attire came over for a closer look. The fair-haired lady was wearing a blue blouse, blue jeans, a flowered neckerchief, a pearl necklace, and a pair of large movie-star-looking sunglasses, with a leather purse swung over her shoulder. The gentleman was a tall Texan type wearing a straw cowboy hat, a blue checkered shirt, dungarees and suspenders, and holding a brown buckskin fringed jacket over his arm.
They had all the appearances of ordinary duded up vacation folks and proved to be very intrigued with our “side show”, treating it as if it were the main attraction! Yet when he handed me his business card to put in our famous trademarks section, it put quite a different slant on his hayseed exterior. It had a bluish space craft on it and read:
He introduced us to his wife, Majel Barrett, alias Nurse Christine Chapel from Star Trek. We proceeded to show them our collections, including photos of us with the celebs in our “Book of Stars,” and invited them to be invested in the honor roll! They readily agreed, and we took a snap shot together to put alongside his card. We then conversed about the beauty of the area and what had brought them there to begin with. They said they were going to be doing a Star Trek Bloopers presentation in Reno, Nevada, to benefit the Special Olympics, and they wished that their 8-year-old son, Rod, had come with them to see the van instead of staying at the hotel swimming pool. “He would have been as fascinated as we were to meet you and see your Magic Bus!” Gene exclaimed.
Two days later we headed over to the Hilton Hotel Opera House in Reno that was showcasing “An Evening with Gene Roddenberry.” We figured we’d add a little slice of pizzazz to the night by surprising Gene with one of our notorious singing telegram “hits” while he was on stage at the podium. Our little serenade parody of “Football Hero” ran as follows:
You got to be like our pal Gene you bet… etc.
We received a hearty, jovial, and bellowing laugh from him, and a rousing reception and applause from the audience. Afterwards he invited us to his private hospitality suite to serenade his wife, who had left earlier to prepare a welcome afterglow for the special guests. Like the pied pipers, we led him and his party people to her door and sang “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” to Mrs. Roddenberry, who received our song with the natural radiance and surprise of a blushing school girl.
The gracious hostess welcomed the whole “Coo-Coo Chorus” with open arms and hugs, and invited everyone to indulge at the refreshment tables. The Rodenberrys were beaming with excitement and exuberance as they shared a good laugh together due to our rather unorthodox and unexpected entry, and the Mrs. asked if we would honor them by entertaining for the selected gathering after we had eaten and wet our whistles.
It was a very intimate party, and we did our song-and-comedy act among their family, friends, and close personal associates, flavored with some salt and pepper haired Reno Hotel/Casino big wigs. They all encouraged our improvisational antics with encore after encore. Then at its standing ovation conclusion (not only for lack of chairs!), we took our final bows, and Gene took the floor of the center stage to proclaim our accolades with a deep sense of warmth and appreciation. With the finesse and command of a circus ringmaster, he declared in a voice of authority, experience, and thoughtful conviction: “These Are Artists!!!”
He then presented us with an “Honorary Award Special Certificate” which read:
To cap off the night, the “Starlit Couple” asked us to do them a special favor and show their pride and joy, 8 year old Rod, our exceedingly unusual vehicle which they had tried their darndest to describe to him after our first encounter. So we took him down to the hotel garage where we had parked in a place reserved for official vehicles only, leaving on the dashboard our many cards and badges of authority given to us by sheriffs, police chiefs, and the powers that be who we had previously entertained. We weren’t expecting little Rod to be so impressed. After all, being the son of such a set of high profile sci-fi parents would surely make him “Numero Uno” on any of the Star Trek TV or movie sets.
Nevertheless, he was ecstatic as we showed him our various collections and let him operate all of the special effects. We had a hard time tearing him away, but we didn’t want his dear Ma and Pa to think we had shot off into astrosphere with Junior on board! Heading towards the elevator through the plush lobby, we were clowning as usual, and had a $10 bill on a string with a retractable device. We would place it on the floor and discreetly watch as people tried to scoop it up inconspicuously. At that precise moment, we would push the button and snatch it back from their greedy grasps, causing some to lose their balance and almost keel over. Rod was laughing his head off, having the time of his life goofing around with us and feeling like one of “The Jersey Boys.”
When we got back up to the room, he was unrestrainedly hyped up retelling his adventures and wanted to hit the road with us jesters and make it a trio…but his loving guardians had other plans for the lad! As we bid farewell, we told everyone to look out the picture window of the hotel suite to watch our grand finale exit extravaganza show. Then we blasted off with flashing lights, blaring horns, and screeching sirens, as the whole partying group pressed their curious mesmerized faces against the large framed glass, looking like tropical fish in an aquarium. Mission Accomplished!
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The Traveling Troubadour is originally from the “Silent Motion Picture Capital of the World”, Fort Lee, New Jersey. In the 1970’s-80’s, as part the Vaudeville duo “Jules n’ Wood”, he toured the country coast and coast and internationally, performing for live audiences, radio broadcasts, movie productions, and theater presentations. As an actor, director, humorist, vocalist, and studio recording artist, he had the privilege of performing for numerous well-known celebrity legends and world figures, including President Reagan, Princess Grace, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, George Burns, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, James Cagney, Gene Roddenberry and many others. Known as “The Entertainers’ Entertainer” and “The Ambassador of Goodwill”, he has enlightened the hearts and lifted the spirits of all walks of life with his God-given gift of personal entertainment. He is currently writing his memoirs and has recently produced “The Bless Tree Series” of religious music CDs found on his BandCamp Page. He also puts out posts and pictures from entertaining days on his Official Facebook Page.