Could this be a story about the big one that got away?
The big fish that for decades marked the entrance to Trout’s Nightclub in Oildale is still missing.
The sign that many believe is a valuable chunk of local history that belongs in Bakersfield and to Bakersfield — whether or not the nightclub ever reopens — was taken down in mid-May, apparently by longtime nightclub proprietor Thomas Rockwell, who said in a Facebook post May 20 he was having the sign refurbished.
But Rockwell has disappeared. He hasn’t answered multiple calls from me and other reporters, and his Facebook account appears to have been deleted.
According to one Bakersfield native who knows Rockwell and claims he spoke with him last week, the sign is never coming home.
“That sign is gone, and it is never coming back,” said Glenn J. Pogatchnik, 68, a former local who now makes his home on California’s Central Coast.
Pogatchnik, the coordinator of a website called That Bakersfield Sound, said Rockwell took the sign to his childhood home in Northern California.
After first saying he would help find the sign, Pogatchnik called back the following day and told me Bakersfield had abandoned Trout’s and treated Rockwell badly, and therefore didn’t deserve the sign.
“Trout’s is over with. It died the same death the Blackboard did,” he said, referring to the storied Bakersfield bar where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard cut their musical teeth in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
“Rockwell feels Bakersfield let him down,” he said. “For 17 years, he put all his money into it.”
But Carol Donnelly, who tended bar at Trout’s for nearly seven years, until leaving two years ago, said she could write a book on “that man’s shenanigans,” referring to Rockwell.
She said there’s no way of knowing where the sign is, but suggested it could be in a local rental storage unit.
“He is the king of storage rentals,” she said of Rockwell. “He’s had so many all over town.”
Will Stuart, of Los Altos-based Milestone Financial LLC, is overseeing the real estate asset, Trout’s, for the new ownership group, Thurman Investments LLC.
According to the deed dated May 11, there was a notice of default and an election to sell. Mortgage Lender Services, which earlier had foreclosed on the property, sold it in a public auction to Thurman Investments on May 9, just before the sign disappeared.
“I think we know who took it,” Stuart said.
“Everybody should be looking for it. Thurman Investments is the owner of the sign. It’s a fixture of the building.”
Stuart said he is considering filing a police report, but as of midday Wednesday, he had not.
Meanwhile, rumors of the whereabouts of the grungy but iconic sign have even reached Music City.
“Have You Seen the Trout’s Trout?” asked a headline in Wednesday’s Nashville Scene.
“The bar, which hosted performances by Merle Haggard and other architects of the Bakersfield Sound, has fallen on hard times, with rumors flying about its closing,” the story notes, incorrectly suggesting that Haggard had once graced the club’s stage. “The property is for sale, according to The Bakersfield Californian, and to add insult to injury, the beloved fish sign has gone missing.”
If Nashville cares, maybe Bakersfield and Oildale will care, too. But it’s hard to tell sometimes. Bakersfield has a history of discarding cultural icons, the old for the new, with a casual air.
There are places in Europe that have more admiration and respect for Bakersfield’s country music history than Bakersfield itself.
But, who knows. Everything old is new again. Anything can happen.
In the meantime, local real estate broker Alex Balfour, of Cushman & Wakefield, has listed the old Trout’s property for sale, with an asking price of $395,000.
Anyone wanna buy a big fish?