Will the O.C. bump the Duke?

Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor to Opinion, a staff writer at OC Weekly and the author of "¡Ask a Mexican!"

Listen here, pilgrims: For the first time ever, John Wayne needs the help of us city slickers.

Some Orange County businessmen want the Board of Supervisors to rebrand our regional airport as John Wayne-Orange County Airport. The motivation for such an addendum, according to these boosters? They claim the current label confuses travelers and that it’s time to capitalize on O.C.'s newfound fame, borne through the half a dozen or so TV shows highlighting the region’s wealthy denizens. This thinking posits that America is now so obsessed with Orange County that including it in the name of our air transportation hub will translate into more tourist dollars.

The last time someone suggested renaming John Wayne Airport -- in 2004, Supervisor Chris Norby wondered out loud about renaming it The O.C. Airport, John Wayne Field -- thousands of calls and letters flooded the supes’ offices in protest. This time around, it seems the only people who vigorously oppose a name change are Wayne’s family and Walter Brennan-esque coots.


Five years ago, I would’ve been ecstatic about such a change. For myself and many other county residents, John Wayne Airport was an embarrassment, its moniker a relic, an easy punch line for pundits to tie the county to wacky conservatism. And the statue! A 9-foot-tall bronze likeness of Wayne -- Stetson, boots, kerchief, vest, holster, bullets missing from his gun belt, next to a massive American flag -- stands near baggage claim, a towering reminder of our hubris and tackiness.

But with maturity, I’ve come to realize the name’s necessity. John Wayne Airport represents much more about Orange County than a cursory glance reveals. It’s the epitome of the aphorism from Wayne’s 1962 classic, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Wayne was born in Iowa and raised in Glendale, but O.C. lore maintains the county created the movie star. The story goes that the man born Marion Morrison forsook USC football for an acting career after sustaining a shoulder injury while body surfing at Newport Beach’s notorious Wedge. He spent his final years back in Newport Beach too, acting as a kind, crotchety uncle to everyone. Many older residents still share stories of seeing Wayne around town, sailing along the coastline in his minesweeper-turned-yacht and spending many a drinking night at the Balboa Bay Club.

So when then-Supervisor Tom Riley sneaked through a resolution that changed the name of Orange County Airport to John Wayne shortly after the actor’s death in 1979, no one blinked.

Wayne played no ostensible part in the formation of Orange County’s identity. He didn’t combine conservatism with commerce like the recently deceased Carl Karcher of Carl’s Jr. fame. He wasn’t tied to the county’s aviation legacy a la pilot Eddie Martin or (unrelated) plane manufacturer Glenn Martin. Wayne didn’t even bother to leave a massive playground like Walt Disney, another Hollywood titan who took us rubes for a ride. But Orange County didn’t care -- we accepted Wayne as ours.

Tellingly, Riley didn’t cite Wayne’s few forgettable flyboy roles (“Jet Pilot,” though produced by Howard Hughes, is no “Rio Bravo”), his ties to Orange County or even the man himself in justifying renaming our airport after his friend. According to Riley, Wayne “exemplified in his character the qualities of the West -- a love of freedom, fundamental optimism, a search for new frontiers and super-strong patriotism.” His movies represented Orange County’s adopted persona -- rough-hewn, libertarian -- the antithesis of our tranquil suburban reality. Christening a major public facility like an airport further tied Wayne to his adopted county.

“Here’s somebody who stood his whole life for something,” Wayne’s son, Ethan, told an Orange County Register reporter earlier this year, “and now they want to name it after a fad.”

And ain’t that the truth, pardner. The various Orange County-based television shows (“The O.C.,” “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” to name the most reprehensible) function as modern-day aspiration fantasies for millions in the same way a previous generation idolized Wayne’s roles. But our pop culture popularity won’t last.

Calling it John Wayne-Orange County Airport puts the motivation behind each side of the hyphen on an equal level in the Orange County story, and that’s just laughable. Those programs and their fans aren’t pioneers who tamed the O.C. wilderness but spoiled, ingrate rich kids living off the hard work of their ancestors.

Orange County’s hip factor is already diminishing -- only one Orange County-centric show remains on TV -- and future generations will view our rash of popularity with the same bemused approach as we nowadays consider the Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Meanwhile, the Duke remains standing tall, emblematic of our own everlasting ethos: When the legend becomes fact, we bronze the legend.