It was a star in empty space. A media-friendly, metaphor-inspiring '90s hipster that was fashionably alienated, yet never lacked attention.
But then (cue tragic Behind the Music soundtrack here) the Mojave Phone Booth, that isolated telecommunications anomaly and object of Web fan worship, was disconnected and carted away.
In a joint decision, the National Park Service and Pacific Bell removed the booth two weeks ago from the Mojave National Preserve near Baker, California, because of the "negative impact on the environment" caused by visitors. The famed booth was killed, one might say, by media saturation; a star smothered by the love of its fans.
The booth's biggest fan, a Tempe artist who goes by the name of Godfrey Daniels (actually an old W.C. Fields utterance), heard about the booth's removal after it occurred. Daniels is credited with making the booth a cult celebrity using his Deuce of Clubs Web site (www.deuceofclubs.com). In retrospect, Daniels was perhaps attempting an infeasible balancing act: to share this booth -- something quirkily beautiful and uniquely cool -- with like-minded individuals while protecting it from becoming co-opted by mainstream culture.
He succeeded for a while. But then, last year, the booth became the new It icon.
There were copycat Web sites, countless news stories (including New Times' "Phone Alone," April 15, 1999) and even recent references in US West and 1-800-COLLECT commercials (both depicting phone booths among Joshua trees, though neither used the real booth -- which is a scarred, grungy character and far from Madison Avenue-idyllic). Last September, the booth reached its mainstream-media peak when NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw hosted a news segment on the booth's popularity.
Daniels says he knew the booth was too good to last.
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"I'm actually kind of mixed about it," he says. "I never meant to start an avalanche of people trooping out there, but I do think people had a right to be there. I talked to the Pac Bell spokesman and he kept quoting the "negative environmental impact' phrase from the press release. And I kept saying, "What negative impact specifically?' and he couldn't tell me. [Visitors are] traveling on an established road, they're not killing tortoises."
Daniels' site now encourages fans to lobby the park service for the booth's return. He says the removal was all too sneaky, noting there's no disconnect message when you call the booth's number. The line just rings, as if the booth were still connected somewhere. Daniels says he was told by Pac Bell that "nobody knows where the booth is."
"If they reverse their decision, we'll put the booth back," Daniels says. "If not and I can get it, I'll put it somewhere, wire it and just give out the phone number -- not telling anybody where it is."