MANTI — More than 10 years ago before Ed Roth died, his wife promised him that she would carry on a legacy dear to his heart.
That legacy is a little green mouse who lives in a junkyard, has a huge mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth, twisted limbs and a tongue and eyes that his head can barely contain.
And so, through an Internet website, (www.ratfink.com), car shows and a yearly reunion in Manti, Rat Fink lives on. In fact, this year the pop culture icon that began in the ‘60s turns an almost respectable 50 years old. The reunion is also marking its 10th year.
“He loved Rat Fink so much because Rat Fink could do anything he wanted, he had no boundaries,” Ilene "Trixie" Roth said of her husband.
The annual reunion ran Thursday through Saturday in Manti, drawing hundreds of fans of the 1960s counter-pop culture icon and his gang of “Weirdos” — wild eyeball popping, tongue dragging, speed crazed, hot-rodding misfits. The junkyard gang popped up everywhere on T-shirts, lunch pail stickers, posters, model cars and more.
The gang of nearly-foaming-at-the-mouth caricatures was strange enough to frighten young children, scandalize proper adults, and fascinate and delight a generation of boys.
“Big Daddy” Ed Roth, a child of a German immigrant family, grew up in the heat of Southern California’s hoppin’ hot rod culture of the 1950s and 60s. He loved cars — figuring out how to take things apart and put them back together, albeit radically transformed — and he loved drawing.
His parents spoke German at home, so when Roth got to kindergarten, he had no idea what was going on. To keep a low profile and stay out of trouble, he sat at the back of the room and occupied himself by drawing. It became a lifelong love.
But cars called out to him as well. He bought his first when he was 12. The first thing he did was to “chop” it, Trixie Roth said. That means he lowered the roof and other parts to make the car lower to the ground.
His father told him, “Get that thing from my house. You don’t do that to a car.” Cars weren't meant to be cut up, his father believed. He couldn’t understand why his son would by a perfectly good car and then ruin it, she said.
Chopping cars led to building them. Roth was one of the first to create custom hot rod bodies from fiberglass. On his first try, as was his habit, he didn’t bother reading the directions. “He just started stirring (the fiberglass),” Roth said. “He put it out in the sun and it started to melt.”
Undeterred, he tried again, only this time he read the directions. A sculpture piece on display at the reunion car show in Manti City Park Saturday was mostly a blue blob of melted fiberglass — a tribute to Roth’s early start, now the stuff of legend.
Roth’s creations could be futuristic and innovative, as well. One of his designs sports a spaceship-like bubble glass window. He installed TVs and even a rear backing up monitor, just as some cars have today.
He was the first to create the “chopper” motorcycles, as well, Trixie Roth said. Ed would take Harley Davidsons that he’d picked up for cheap at police auctions, extend the front wheel way out, change the handlebars, pull down the seat — another counter-cultural icon born. For the lack of any books on how to create the choppers, Roth got a copy machine and printed his own.
The next step in Roth’s progression to legendary status came naturally. He began applying his natural artistic skills to decorating his motor-powered creations, his widow said. He fell in with a group of fellow travelers who created the art of pin-striping — painting thin, intricate lines of decorative detail on the body of a hot rod.
Then, somewhere from the depths of his brain emerged a world teeming with his frenetic caricatures. Roth created Rat Fink during an early '60s stint in the Air Force, and others quickly emerged as well.
Roth intentionally created the rabid-looking mouse as an alter-ego/evil twin to Disney’s Mickey Mouse, which especially saturated Southern California culture at the time.
Mickey Mouse was just too clean-cut, too proper, Trixie Roth said. Ed loved Rat Fink — the rodent represented cutting loose, being whatever he wanted to be, doing whatever he wanted to do — which was to create crazy-looking rods and drive them fast.
Perhaps best of all for Roth, Rat Fink lived in a junkyard with his equally scruffy and like-minded friends. It’s a hot-rodder’s dream — free access to all the spare parts they could possibly need for their stuck-together creations.
The Big Daddy loved people and they loved him back, Trixie Roth said. “He was the most enjoyable person I’ve ever been around.”
Roth also happens to be the Sanpete County auditor.
She married Ed when he was 65 with a 20-year gap between them. Even so, “Ed was so much younger at heart than me,” she said. “Ed was such a kid at heart.”
But in Southern California too many people were always dropping in to talk, meet or hang out with Roth. It took him away too much from his main passions: cars and caricatures. He realized he needed to leave the Golden State, find a place off the beaten path.
In 1974, due to the influence of a neighbor, Roth was converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1987, he set his sights on Utah, specifically Manti. It fit the bill: away from big cities, with an LDS temple, and a small, quiet peaceful place — perfect for concentrating on his work.
Becoming a Mormon not only affected Ed Roth, but the Weirdos as well.
“He’d gone from one walk of life to the next,” Trixie said. “He said he had to make a few changes. He used to run with the Hell’s Angels, and he did a total change. He was very dedicated to the church.”
The gang of caricatures made their own adjustments. Wild Child, for example, gave up his brass knuckles for an ice cream cone. In one drawing, Rat Fink is discouraging smoking.
Still, it was a long way from Mickey Mouse. And a long way from Manti — a conservative, rural Utah town still deeply imprinted with its pioneer heritage. But Roth loved people so much, he fit right in, Trixie said. He could talk to anybody about anything and still be respectful of their point of view.
His deep commonality with his LDS neighbors was his community spirit. Roth loved to help people, she said. He was known to spot hitchhikers on the road, flip his car around, talk to them for awhile, and if they seemed to be genuinely in need, he might give them a sleeping bag and empty out his wallet for them.
“Ed could read people extremely well,” Trixie Roth said. They would sit around at car shows and Ed would point to someone and say, "That guy’s a cop, or he’s dentist, or that guy’s a lawyer," and when they would come up, the Roths would ask them and sure enough, she said, “Ed would be right on.”
And he loved and supported the Boy Scouts.
Growing up outside the LDS faith, he hadn’t been one himself, but he would tell the bishop of his Manti ward that whatever the Scouts lacked in fundraising for the year, he would make up the difference.
“He knew that’s how you end up with good kids,” Trixie said. “You teach them everything they need to know to be good people.”
The Rat Fink reunion held each year in Manti is in part a tribute to Roth’s community-spiritedness, she added. Not only is it literally a reunion of a family of pin-striping hotrod artists, but it raises funds for projects in Manti and nearby communities, including the restrooms at the Manti park and, this year, the new Children’s Justice Center in Ephraim.
Big Daddy’s legacy continues not just through Rat Fink T-shirts, not just through two tribute rooms in Trixie’s home and a spacious Rat Fink convention center out back, and not just through a recently released Revell model car of Roth’s famed hot rod Tweedy Pie.
It also lives on in the T-shirt. He was the first to print art on a T-shirt, Trixie said. Before he did that, they were mostly worn as underwear — after Roth put designs on them and others followed suit, they also became an outer garment.
It was only one of many creations to spring from his fertile mind. Even later in life, Big Daddy was creating new characters and new designs.
Many times he would wake up from a dream, laughing, his widow remembers. When she asked why, he would say that he’d had a dream about his characters.
Rat Fink and the gang?
No, he would reply. There were thousands of others.
He lived from 1932 to 2001, creating right up to the end. And their popularity is living on, as well. At the last car show the Roths attended in Chicago, they completely sold out of merchandise, Trixie said. Ed was happy and amazed that Rat Fink and the gang would live on.
He left thousands of characters and designs that had never been brought to public light, stuffed away in boxes. Even today, when people ask who created a newly-issued T-shirt, Trixie will tell them simply, “Ed did.”
“I know Ed is extremely pleased that Rat Fink is carrying on,” she added. “He did not want Rat Fink to go away.”
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company