It seemed like a lifetime, but then time moves slowly in Manti, which once a year supposedly comes to life in order to celebrate the life and work of legendary custom car builder and graphic artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. I’ve been wanting to attend now for some time—ever since the day I last passed through the town on my motorcycle and noticed a sign in the front window of Fred’s Sports Grill advertising something called The Rat Fink Burger. So of course I pulled in and ordered one. I remember there was some discussion amongst the staff regarding what, exactly, constitutes a Rat Fink Burger.
Turns out it was a pretty tasty burger—much more appetizing than the grotesque, slavering, bug-eyed rodent caricature—think Mickey Mouse on Meth—that Roth introduced to the world back in the Nineteen Fifties. In those days he ran a custom shop in Los Angeles frequented by unwashed bikers and hotrodders for whom the Rat Fink embodied everything an outlaw road warrior could possibly wish for in a role model.
Late in life Roth did something so radical it shook his fan base to the core. He shaved off the goatee, married a Mormon girl, converted to her religion, and retired to the sleepy little farming community of Manti, Utah, where he lived quietly until his death in 2001.
Rat Fink, however, still lives—at least according to press releases and fliers advertising the Fourteenth Annual Rat Fink Reunion. I, myself, am not a fan; however, because I used to earn a living covering oddball events in the western United States, I decided I just had to go.
Even before I got to Manti, my enthusiasm had begun to wane. It was Friday, the beginning of the weekend, and the roads were choked with heavy-duty pickup trucks towing trailers heaped with dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles. The Arby’s in Nephi where I stopped to get a sandwich was packed with suburbanite cowboys bound for the hills and a multitude of hyperactive children. It was hot, and even though we were all supposedly on holiday, everyone seemed vaguely out of sorts, especially me. Wherever all those people were headed, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Fourteenth Annual Rat Fink Reunion.
Driving up Salt Creek Canyon, I was passed by two hirsute bikers on Harleys and correctly surmised that they might be Rat Fink fans. Later, I would spot the pair standing in the parking lot of a WalMart in Ephraim, sipping Big Gulps and looking quite lost.
In Manti, I fully expected to be greeted by flags and banners, but no. The town was deathly quiet, the only movement being a small crew mowing the grass on Temple Hill in preparation for the upcoming Mormon Miracle Pageant, wherein dozens of adenoidal teenaged boys wearing loin cloths and bathrobes and wielding wooden spears re-enact epic battles between Nephites and Lamanites on the Plains of Zarahemla.
I remembered reading about a museum in town where artifacts pertaining to Roth’s life and work would be on display. Seeing a sign that read MUSEUM, I hung a right and presently came upon a two-story adobe brick edifice maintained by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. A sign affixed to the locked door gave a phone number I could call should I want to see what’s inside, but I was pretty sure none of the exhibits inside pertained to Ed Roth or the Rat Fink. So I contented myself with just looking at some items on display in the yard. Each was labeled, including an old wooden wagon. HORSE DRAWN WAGON, read the sign, which is how I knew it wasn’t a pinstriped, chopped and channeled ’51 Mercury. I’m no historian, but I’m old enough to tell the difference between an automobile and a horse drawn wagon.
Up and down Main Street I drove in search of the action. Finding none, I decided to visit the Manti cemetery, which lies just across the highway from the historic LDS Temple. There I found a directory listing the names of all who are interred there in alphabetical order. Edward Roth is on that list; however, owing to the fact that residents of Manti don’t expire in alphabetical order, I was unable to locate his grave. The coordinates are PA-B12-L33-GO1, if that makes any sense to you.
I wandered about the graveyard for some time, hoping to come upon a marker or a sign pointing the way to Mr. Roth’s final resting place, or perhaps a gravestone sprouting granite rodent ears? Alas, nothing. What I found was a headstone beneath which lies the architect who designed the Manti Temple. Another marked the grave of P.O. Hansen, who translated the Book of Mormon into Danish—presumably so that the early pioneers of Sanpete County, aka, “Little Denmark,” could read it.
Once more up and down Main Street and I was done. I saw no signs of life whatsoever. Evidently Fred’s Sports Grill is no longer selling Rat Fink Burgers, although a small banner encouraged Rat Fink Reunion revelers to “boogie on in” for breakfast.
Ah, but that would mean spending the remainder of the afternoon and an entire evening in Manti. Life is too short for that. I decided to just boogie on out of town.