At first glance, certain archive objects, such as a postcard, may appear mundane. Yet, with just a little bit of investigation, that same mundane postcard can become mesmeric, opening up avenues into history unfathomable. Telling the stories behind ordinary artefacts (such as a mass-produced souvenir) is what makes research about material, and popular, culture so compelling. The ordinary becomes extraordinary with a bit of digging and insight.
I had one such encounter in the Autry archive last week as I went diligently about my labours up in the reading room on the first floor. A search of the archive catalogue had thrown up this reference to a postcard from 1939 featuring an image of the ‘Levi’s Electric Rodeo’. Almost dismissing it outright, since rodeos aren’t my research focus, I did a quick Google search (yes, the last refuge of the research scoundrel) with surprising results.
1939 was not only the year of the World’s Fair in New York but also the year of the, now lesser known, West coast counterpart, the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. The theme of the GGIE was ‘Pageant of the Pacific’ and land was acquired to build the campus of ‘Treasure Island’, which promoted San Francisco as a hub for arts, culture and business in the Pacific Rim. Home town company, Levi Strauss, the famous denim jeans manufacturer created an ‘Electric Rodeo’ for the Expo, which was pioneering in its technology as an automated sideshow and proved to be exceptionally popular with visitors in the ‘Vacationland’ entertainment area. The reverse of the postcard held in the Autry collection (which was distributed at the GGIE along with a booklet, apparently, that described the making of the attraction) lauded Levi’s innovation thus: “A 100% electric rodeo. It moves. It talks. Its figures are all hand-carved likenesses of famous rodeo people. And they’re all dressed in authentic Western togs…miniature replicas of garments made in California since 1853 by Levi Strauss & Company”. 31 wooden puppets performed to a vinyl soundtrack of western music in a 20-minute show that featured a bucking horse, a clown and mule, announcers and judges.
Although the Expo itself had wavering success (it was open only between February and October 1939, reopening in May through to September of 1940), the Electric Rodeo was a hit. After its stint at Treasure Island, the Electric Rodeo was adapted to take to the roads on the back of a streamliner truck (this splendid 1938 international Harvester D-300 truck and trailer, to be precise) and made a 25,000 mile tour of small towns and livestock shows throughout the West. The designer and builder of the show, Leonard W. Mitchell, was accompanied by his wife on the tour, which The Hemphill County News (Fri May 23rd 1941) reported as figuring to the sum of $50, 000. That same report gives a lyrical account of the ingenuity of engineering:
“The rodeo carries its own power plant to operate the twelve electric motors and scores of electric magnets that actuate its tens of thousands of moving parts. From behind the scenes, it has the complexity of Rube Goldberg’s mechanical nightmares. Yet, so perfectly has the mechanism been designed that it works automatically throughout, without the necessity of any attendant to pull a wire or so much as throw a switch. The entire action and sound of the rodeo are directed by the electric brain of a concealed robophone. So exact is the coordination of sound and movement that when any performer speaks, his mouth moves in time with the words he is uttering.”
Ain’t that a thing? It appears that the touring Electric Rodeo had a reasonably long and illustrious career, thrilling spectators throughout the 1940s (as this wonderful, and decidedly fifties-style, image testifies). For example, The Lodi-News Sentinel from Thursday August 14th 1947 announced that “rodeo-minded youngsters will be preparing for a treat when the big Levi Strauss puppet rodeo” rolls into town for the annual nine-day long Lodi Horse Show. A similar announcement was made in The Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light from September 22, 1950.
The tale of the Electric Rodeo, once so sparky and sizzling, ends here with mixed fortunes. The shell of the streamliner truck now languishes in a parking lot in Newcastle, CA, bereft of its interior treasures. Rather poignantly, too, only a couple of the miniature jeans (bereft of their puppet-y owners) are said to be stored in the official company archives of Levi-Strauss, along with some promotional papers from the original 1939 Expo in San Francisco. But Levi’s have not restricted their voltaic moment in history to a pair of pint-sized pants. For, in 2014, the company took inspiration from its highly-charged past and commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Electric Rodeo by reproducing some of the puppet outfits in their aptly-named 2014 ‘Treasure Island’ collection, which you may marvel at here and here. And all power to them!