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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

HOT SPOTS in CA: The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum

In the old west you had to be "in it to win it." Could you stand days on end 
in this cramped space?

Marlene Dietrich is most remembered for her seductive roles in top and tails, but the German vixen was also a surprising hit in Westerns. Her most popularly remembered role is that of Frenchy in Destry Rides Again, but she also starred in The Spoilers and Rancho Notorious. Her co-star in The Spoilers just so happens to be last month's L.A. La star, John Wayne. So, in honor of both, here is further tribute to the Western via the delightful and very informative Autry National Center. Giddy up!

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Located in the seemingly infinite space of Griffith Park, this gem is housed right across the parking lot from the Los Angeles Zoo. Inside, there are both permanent displays that commemorate the very harrowing, inspiring, and sometimes violent roots of our nation's past and westward movement-- as well as the manifestation of this history in our cinematic past-- and temporary, rotating displays that showcase different artists, craftsman, etc, which are evidence of our still adherent yet evolving culture from these early days. The museum itself is named for Hollywood's favorite singing cowboy, Gene Autry, but gunslingers aren't the only faction of our culture that are examined: the American Indian, women, Chinese immigrants, Mexicans, etc. are all showcased, and the interrelations between these many peoples are thoroughly investigated.

Gene greets his guests.

The navigation of the fairly large building begins, as always, at the beginning. The front entrance is encased in a courtyard, smack in the center of which is a sculpture commemorating Mr. Autry. Behind him is a movie theater, which occasionally plays, of course, Westerns or other educational programs, and across from this is a small eatery. Attached to the main building is the gift shop, in which one can purchase anything from the usual cheesy knick-knack, to old movie posters, to American Indian crafts like the "secret box"-- which is a very intricately detailed and beautifully designed box that an unskilled person will have an incredible amount of trouble opening. Luckily, this wasn't my first rodeo. (BTW, if you're interested, I particularly like Heartwood Creations, which can be found here).

Alberto Valdes's "Christmas Child."

The inner sanctum is divided into an upstairs and a down. The upper left is dedicated to two rotating displays. When I attended last, I was fortunate enough to be able to view "Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation," which obviously honors the "Chicano" artists in our nation's history. All of the portraits and sculptures were very vivid in their perspective of Mexican-American life, from the beauty of to the struggle of the Mexican immigrant. The greatest surprise to me was my introduction to the artist Alberto Valdes whose provocative paintings were composed of such vibrant colors that they literally seemed to glow. His palette and use of shapes produce the most amazing emotional effects and equally stimulate the eye and mind. A few of his pictures were very specific in the images that they were trying to relate, while others were more intricate and subjective-- surreal but not bizarre. Forgive me, I'm not an art major, so I don't know the correct terms. In layman's terms, they were pretty and pretty cool.

Just a few strands of entwined grass. No biggie.

The next showroom possessed a collection of American Indian basketry. I know what you're thinking: "Baskets... Riveting." Well, it kind of was. In the center of the room was a large circular map of the entire country, and the locations of different tribes were delineated by examples of their particular weaving "style." It was a truly interesting thing to see how the different techniques and artistic penchants varied based on the separate tribes and their regions. As for the baskets themselves, which came in all shaped and sizes, these things were intricate! There were some jaw-dropping videos playing that showed modern weavers at work, and to say that their fingers are nimble is an understatement. I'm still not at all certain how they are able to make all of those delicious little patterns with the wicker and sweetgrass and whatnot, but my lack of awareness did not hamper my aesthetic enjoyment.

The gang's all here: Hollywood's favorite cowboys decorate
the downstairs wall in a jaw-dropping mural.

Moving downstairs, I was immediately hit in the face with an exquisite mural depicting early man's emergence in the west transitioning to the cowboy movie star. The portrait is literally a panorama of visual history. It begins with the hey-day of the American Indian, moves to the collision of natives and white settlers, and ends with movie and television stars like Gary Cooper, Tom Mix, and William S. Hart. It was at this point that I realized non-flash photography was allowed and all of the covert pics that I had been taking were unnecessary. I thought I was being stealthy; turns out no one cared. After taking some shots of the astounding painting, I turned directly behind me and ventured to the outdoor exhibit that tried to bring to life the physical environment and vegetation of the old west. A small space composed of a mini-waterfall and pond, there really wasn't much to look at, but a couple of kids were having a heck of a time "sifting for gold" at an educational exhibit.

One of many reasons I am proud to be a (modern) American-
better medical care.

Thus I re-entered and began my investigation of the historical portion of the museum. This turned out to be my favorite part. I have been to history museums before, but it has admittedly been awhile, so perhaps that is why I was so enthralled with all of the archaeology, or maybe it was the specificity of the subject matter that I found so fascinating. In any case, what I was about to witness was a thorough, moving, and surprising tribute to America's early expansion. The bottom level is divided into three portions: Opportunity, Community, and The Cowboy. I started in "Opportunity," and found myself looking at typical odds and ends of civilian life now made atypical due to their antiquated state. I was most impressed with an early medical kit, perhaps because I have two family members in the dental profession, and I found myself grabbing my jaw and thanking God that medical science has progressed. Much of this section was dedicated to the story of early militia or lawmen, and several compartments honored their efforts toward the establishment of order in the Wild West-- not an easy task as people continued to make their move into the unknown and ungoverned territory. Old uniforms, still in incredible condition, were showcased, as well as weaponry. Other items typically found on the long stage rides-- remember this is pre-locomotive-- were also on display, including luggage, toiletries, and an old coach in toto. Looking at the size of the thing, I was at once impressed by how much larger it was than I had imagined and also was in awe of the fact that, despite this, it still seemed far too small for so many people to be packed inside for such long travels. Our forefathers and mothers were certainly patient.

The integration of the American Indian into typical eastern ways was not 
smooth nor welcome. But here is an example of such 
assimilation-- native law adapts to "foreign" 
government to protect their own.

In the next section, I came across examples of every day life in the West. The most intriguing portion was dedicated to dissecting all of the different factions and how they operated independently from and also in relation to each other. Racism was an issue that certainly came to the forefront, and it was amazing to see even in these early days how many different religions and ethnicities co-existed and at the same time sought their own individual spaces from each other. Mormons, Chinese Immigrants, African American, Italians... You name it. in these early days, birds of a feather flocked together to produce some sort of stability amidst the chaos that came, not just from the danger and suspicion of the nature around them nor from the Native Americans observing them with equal puzzlement and frustration, but from each other. The color of one's skin, the religion he practiced, or the nation from which he had come, became defining factors that tied him to his own people and divided him from all others. As this co-mingling slowly merged into a (slightly) more civilized combination of communities, prejudice gave way to abundance. But along with the daily laundry and cooking, there too was need for fun, which is why the saloon room was one of the highlights of the exhibit for me. With an actual bar complete with ancient liquor bottles and beer advertisements, poker tables, and a roulette wheel, I could almost smell the tobacco. If there is one thing that brings all mankind together, it's liquor.

Can ya' smell the whiskey?

The final portion was completely dedicated to the life of the cowboy. In addition to a display depicting the famous shoot-out at the OK Corral featuring Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, there too was a Colt gallery with some of the most amazing pistols I have ever seen: jewelry for men. Further down, several displays replicated the daily life and toil of the authentic American cowboy, and it was nowhere near as glamorous as the movies portray it, lemme tell ya'. These men worked hard, sweated, fought steers, tangled with barbed wire, and drove cattle across the country, not so much in the name of progress or money-- excluding of course the cattle baron-- but to survive. For the authentic cowboy, the lifestyle possessed no glamour and little respite. It was simply a job-- a way to make a living. Strange how the memory of these pioneers has evolved into perhaps the most romanticized piece of American mythology. However, our continuing appreciation is a good thing. Without these fellows of spur and saddle putting down roots, we wouldn't be sittin' so pretty in our ivory towers, now would we?

A couple of the prize Colts on display. Purty ain't they?

Which brings me to the final portion of the museum: "Imagination." This section was dedicated entirely to the cowboy as a cultural icon and the way he has manifested himself in several mediums, including music, television, and-- of course-- movies. From the silent heroes, to the rhinestone cowboys, to the singin' Gene Autry, every brand of Western celebrity was investigated. Movie buffs will be pleased to see costumes from some of their favorite films as worn by their favorite performers, including Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and Betty Hutton. Because the Western genre has become somewhat buried in present cinema, it was nice to see so much of it revived for public viewing, and the true impact that it has had on this country and its descendants was blatantly identified. Perhaps because this is a history that only we as Americans possess, do we cherish it so greatly. Of course, the power of the cowboy and the Western has drifted into other countries and affected other filmmakers and other film goers, but it is a past that is undeniably in our bones and a part of our souls. There is no cowboy but the American cowboy, which is perhaps why the stars of the silver screen who adorned their heads with ten gallon hats remain some of the most revered in the history of film.

The costumes of Duke and Kate from Rooster Cogburn.

My voyage of the museum over for the time being, I reluctantly departed. As I drove through the winding roads of Griffith Park in the luxury of my Mazda, I found myself grateful for the fruits I had been gifted after a hard won progression of others' labors. But too, I found myself envious of a rugged life of sweat and determination-- a life earned every day by the mere cost of living it. Though the history that I encountered at the Autry Museum is, indeed, history, I don't feel that what I witnessed there is dead. I think every American and every man, woman, and child who ever has or ever will come to American shores for a better life, possesses within him the same inexplicable need to carve out a niche for himself in an open space wherein he can toil, battle, and finally thrive as the keeper of his own destiny. With crowded cities and cement everywhere, it is hard to see the forest without the trees, but our personal adventures of stakes and claims continue. The Wild West, therefore, will always grow and expand within us, for we carry it in our hearts.

A few of Chuck Connors's belongings.

Griffith Park
4700 Western Heritage Way
Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462
T: 323.667.2000
Tuesday–Friday, 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.

Saturday–Sunday, 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Closed on Mondays.
$10 for Adults.
$6 Seniors and Students
$4 Children 3-12 years-old
Free for Children under 3.
Free Parking.

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