An Encounter with Gene Roddenberry: The Traveling Troubadour Meets the Great Bird of the Galaxy
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 screen writer, 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. Afterwards, 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 screen-writer. 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, the same day we Catholics celebrate the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Universe. Initially produced by Desilu and then by Paramount Television, it aired until June 3, 1969, just prior to the greatest astro-navigation 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 an incalculable number of “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 cultural 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 afternoon, 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 picnickers 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:
President, Norway Productions, Inc.
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 a Star Trek hero
To get along with the beautiful girls
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 ring-master, 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:
EFFECTIVE THIS START DATE,
These Traveling Troubadours are hereby commissioned as Honorary Flight Deck Officers on the UNITED SPACE SHIP ENTERPRISE! The above named officers, having given proof of superior judgment and abilities, and having indicated a willingness to engage in hazardous assignment, are ordered to report immediately for STAR TREK duty.
Signed Gene Roddenberry STARFLEET COMMAND
and JAMES KIRK (COMMANDER)!
[Enhanced with an image of ship]
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!
A few weeks after that memorable event, we received a letter that was first sent to our Hollywood address and then forwarded to our State Line, Nevada P.O. Box. It had the same blue Starship as the business card, and had GENE RODDENBERRY, LOS ANGELES, CALI-FORNIA written in the corner. Enclosed was a blue-boarded, folded, hand-written card with his initials G R embossed on the front and was dated 8-4-82. It read:
Hello! My 8 year old son is fascinated by you two since meeting you in Reno. He refers to you most fondly as “The Nuts”.
He is in camp now and for the next month and this letter to you was put in one of the envelopes we left him. (He doesn’t yet understand about post offices, addresses, etc.)
Anyhow, here is his letter which he so much wants you to have. If you can drop him a post card, it will thrill him.
Hope all is going well with you.
Also stuffed inside his letter was another envelope of similar design with a Silver Starship, on a bluish background. Written around the Roddenberry home address in a child’s hand was the message:
If this hit your house mom send it to the nuts house
Inside was a letter on lined paper in the same hand, dated July 26, 1982:
To my nutty friends,
This is Rod speaking. How you are doing? How’s your crazy house and how’s your crazy car? How’s your back yard?
Back in Reno, we had told him about our private fun house known as “The Magic Room” at the “Grandfather’s Land” in Fort Lee, NJ, with ghosts, robots, huge rubber spiders, talking movable mannequins, and jumping monkeys controlled by hidden fishing lines. In the jungle-like, booby-trapped back yard there were “friendly” apes, giant raccoons, wild cats, and other furry creatures that popped out from the bushes. There were also dummies hanging on ropes at the Frankenstein Factory and a 7 foot tall bird-man in a camouflaged outfit with a yellow-eyed live owl perched on his arm. Like his dear ol’e dad, Rod’s imagination was immense, and his eyes lit up like June bugs while listening to our stories!
So by request of his esteemed father, we sent the mini “crazy guys” enthusiast an 8×10 color copy photo of us with our “Magic Memorabilia Mobile” in front of the gates of Paramount Pictures Studios in Hollywood where Star Trek was filmed. It was signed: “To Our Pal Rod, the Third Man of Our Trio.” He probably showed it around camp till it was worn out to prove his super-story which may have grown in dimensions with each telling! Soon after that, we were called back to our home state to entertain at The Showboat and Caesar’s Hotel Casinos in Atlantic City, NJ, and we never saw the frisky little fellow or his loving parents again.
That was 33 years ago. Since then, both his parents have passed away, and Eugene “Rod” Wesley Roddenberry Jr. has assumed the responsibilities as Chief Executive Officer and guardian of his father’s legacy, manning the helm of The Roddenberry Foundation and Star Trek Enterprise. He is perpetuating his dad’s dreams of introducing timeless and universal ideas and ideals to a new generation through creative and inspiring science fiction media productions, merchandise, and philanthropy, striving to be a catalyst in the creation of a world where humanity works together for the greater good.
Rod hadn’t aspired to take on the daunting task of following in his father’s footsteps and trying to fill his large, indelible footprint. He initially had a very limited interest in their “future” business. But when he was 17, he attended the 25th anniversary celebration of the Original Star Trek Series in September of 1991, a month prior to Gene’s death. During the event, he had a life-changing epiphany as the entire auditorium gave his father a thunderous applause and standing ovation out of sincere admiration for his many pioneering achievements and humanitarian endeavors. The elder Roddenberry, although in a wheel-chair, insisted upon standing to reciprocate the gesture, and his wife and son helped him to his feet. At that moment, Rod recalled, “Chills ran up and down my spine”.
Through “The Trek Nation”, his latest documentary about his father’s legacy, there has been a resurgence of Star Trek mania among collectors, hoarders, and trivial buffs that attend conventions all over the planet and are scouring the World Wide Web for memorabilia pertaining to the phenomena. If God gave Gene but one more phrase to reverberate throughout the universe, I think it would be “That’s-a-my-boy!”
As the Pages Turn to the Last Chapter of Gene’s Book of Life…
Gene Roddenberry did not consider himself to be part of any organized religion, and his philosophy of life was a bit complex, as were the messages in his productions. He was credited for lacing “Christian” themes and overtones into many of his scripts in the beginning of his career, and the comradeship, compatibility, and mutual concern shown among the members of the Enterprise crew also emanated from traditional moral roots. However, as he climbed high in the sky of the world of sci-fi, he soared out of range of his basic belief systems from his days as a Baptist choir boy.
While his mother had raised him as a church-goer, his father’s anti-religious attitude may have encouraged him to take on the facade of a twilight child, going through life in the cloud of a foggy and distorted spiritual view that often questioned the existence of a loving, personal God. He may have taken issue (as many of us do!) with the holier-than-thou, fire-and-brimstone types who could have triggered his opposition to their strident forms of proselytizing and ultimately steered him on his own alternate course.
But contrary to common misconceptions and rumors that he was an atheist, he once stated: “It’s not true that I don’t believe in God. I reject religion; I accept the notion of God.” In the final chapter of Roddenberry’s life, a philosopher friend spent considerable time with “The Great Grounded Eagle”, who was by then blind in one eye, partially paralyzed, and wheel-chair bound. After his death, his friend reasserted that Gene Roddenberry continued to be “a far cry from atheism” in his last days.
Furthermore, he had a certain admiration for the Catholic Church, even though he was never educated in the faith and did not understand or believe in the magnitude of its divine mysteries. As an artist, Catholicism’s aesthetic majesty resonated with him, and he referred to it as “a very beautiful religion…an art form.” If only he had delved deeper beneath the surface and come to accept the fusion of faith and reason, his interior search might have been fulfilled and his exterior journeys would have been more richly endowed by sharing those universal truths via his own particular gift of genius.
Touching back on my own memoirs, Gene Rodenberry and I were “Fellow Time Travelers,” yet centuries apart in our respective philosophical journeys. He was reaching far out into humanity’s future in search of truth through science and man’s ability to planet hop. My own search took me back into the sacred past and led me to believe that the seeds of salvation had already been sown on Earth’s fertile soil by the King of the Universe and the Prince of Peace, who gave the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter the Rock.
We two providentially met on the crossroads of Earth and Space and established a unique personal connection. Through my experience of making fond memories and developing a bond of familial friendship with Gene, I found him to be a genuinely decent “humanist” being, having the priceless quality of humility, a naturally warm sense of humor, and a child-like fascination for creativity in all genres. By way of our “Blessed Bus” and the simplicity of our musical and comedy entertainment of yesteryear, Gene graciously accepted a portion of God’s gift that we were divinely directed to share by touching hearts. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
Gene Roddenberry’s memorial funeral was on held on All Saints Day, November 1 (which is also the vigil of All Souls Day on Nov. 2), at the Forest Lawn Mortuary in Hollywood Hills, CA, just outside the City of the Angels where he gained his fame. On that site, the “Birth of Liberty” mosaic wall reads: “God gave us liberty. Those who forsake God lose their liberty.” Those in attendance looked heavenward as four modern aircrafts passed overhead in a classic aviation tribute to a fellow pilot, and at the close of the ceremony, two kilted bagpipers played a timeless hymn which resounded in the mourners’ heavy hearts and echoed through the marble Halls of Liberty:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…’Twas blind but now I see…
God, in his infinite wisdom, is the reader of all hearts and will judge each of us according to our true intentions with justice and mercy. As Catholics we believe that praying for the souls of the departed will lessen their time in Purgatory, which serves as a purification and preparation for Heaven.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
And let your perpetual light shine upon them
May the souls of the departed
Through the mercy of God rest in peace…
And may the Queen of the Universe, the Star of the Sea,
Embrace them and reveal to them
The boundless Love of her Divine Son.
(Gene: Aug. 19, 1921-Oct 24, 1991) and (Majel: Feb. 23, 1932-Dec. 18, 2008)