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The return of a silent movie star, and the obelisk of Easy Street

The return of a silent movie star, and the obelisk of Easy Street

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He had more than his 15 minutes of fame when Brad Pitt repeatedly caught him and released him in A River Runs Through It. Since those glory days on location with Robert Redford, et al., Fernando, the mechanical jumping trout, has journeyed around the U.S. and Canada as part of a traveling “Special Effects in the Movie” show sponsored by the California Museum of Technology.

Hamilton fly-fishing outfitter and mechanical trout-maker John Foust handcrafted the larger-than-life Fernando for the film when real trout refused to jump and feed on command.

But after five years on the road, this fish out of water returned to Hamilton and his real home with Foust. Recently, Foust threw a party to welcome Fernando home. Everyone from the glittering world of Hamilton’s fly-fisheratti showed up to pay homage to the trout of the hour, now ensconced behind glass (and still on his track) and hung in a place of honor in the Foust living room.

“That’s one thing about Hamilton,” says Foust. “It doesn’t take much to make a social event.”

Fernando, as a mechanical special effect, is a near-extinct species, what with the advent of computerized effects. And he was treated as such: On his five-year tour of science museums between L.A. and New York, Fernando was insured for $500,000.

Did Foust worry about the well-being of his creation? “Oh yeah,” he says, sucking on a cigarette, “there were lots of nights I couldn’t sleep, worrying that the drug dealers were going to steal him, or whether the [museum] would make the check out right.”

Depending on Foust’s personal fortunes, Fernando may or may not spend his days hanging on a living room wall in Hamilton. “If I go broke fishing,” his creator says, “I may put him on eBay.”

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Where did it come from? What does it symbolize? What masterful stoneworkers of old constructed it, and toward what ends?

We’re not talking about the pyramids of Giza, or the Taj Mahal, or Poseidon’s Temple at Cape Souniou. The mystery-shrouded wonder we’re talking about is a little closer to home—the hidden obelisk of Easy Street.

Recently, folks from the homeowners’ association of the Ben Hughes Addition—that cozy warren of homes between Eastgate and East Missoula—stopped in to posit an archaeological riddle. At the ancient intersection of Highway 200 and North Easy Street, they pointed out, there is an old wooden highway sign that briefly describes, in that cursory, carved-letter way that highway signs have, the history of Hellgate Canyon. And some five paces away there is a stout cement obelisk set on a pedestal, placed as if to mark a spot of some significance, or to commemorate an event not to be forgotten. But what?

Members of the association want to refurbish the site, but they have been unable to discover who owns the monument, who built it and why it is there. The state highway commission has claimed responsibility for the sign, but even they came up empty when it came to the obelisk. So now the researchers have issued an open call to all Montanans with long memories or curious dispositions. Antiquarians, folklorists, fanciers of history, if you have in your possession any precious bits of insight about the obelisk of Easy Street, don’t keep them entombed. Call Dave Spiltie at 728-7949. And don’t forget your whip and fedora.

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