Monday, April 11, 2016

Cowpoking Around The Autry Museum


One rainy afternoon in Los Angeles last month, this Okie visitor drove his rental car around the bend from Hollywood to the northeast corner of Griffith Park.


Like Oklahoma City's National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (a hometown favorite since youthful days growing up and working nearby), LA's museum "The Autry" -- founded by country music and acting legend Gene Autry -- celebrates fine art, sculpture and historic artifacts related to Native American and cowpoke culture.

Southwest heaven!

Nestled in a pueblo-inspired albeit plain building between the Los Angeles Zoo and Interstate 5 near the exit to Glendale, Calif., it stunned me to learn the museum collection includes more than 500,000 objects, the newest of which may be the costumes donned by the three principal characters of "The Hateful Eight" portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Their Wyoming winter coats incorporating bison and other furs are on prominent display in galleries filled with hundreds of treasures of Western cinema.

But before getting ahead of myself, a brief return to the man who helped round up all those artifacts.

Upon arrival at the museum, I knew of Mr. Autry mostly through his greatest hits of music and film. There's also a little town in my home state that bears his name, just a click or two north of Ardmore, Okla. (The town of Gene Autry, Okla., has a 2010 Census population of 158).

I had no idea, however, that Autry was in more than 90 movies, on his own TV show, a baseball team owner, business man and radio executive among many other titles and roles in his very successful career.

Honestly, his Christmas music won't sound the same (only better) now that, thanks to the museum, there's a more complete picture of Mr. Autry informing my listening.

The Autry pays tribute to its founder through a loop of iconic silver screen scenes projected on a large screen in one of the main galleries.

The film dialogue and many of Autry's popular songs provide a repeating soundtrack for part of the museum experience, mostly audible while viewing the extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia tied to portrayals of the Old West.

I was impressed by the collection of silent screen to modern era Western film treasures. Among the standouts (and within a few paces of the aforementioned costumes of "The Hateful Eight"): Original artwork for "Once Upon A Time In The West," hundreds of collectibles for "The Lone Ranger" and even a collection of Michael Jackson's Western wear.

It was fun to spot original paintings by Normal Rockwell and promotional items for some of my all-time favorite Western movies including "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly," "Dances With Wolves," and "Unforgiven."

They even displayed shirts worn by the actors in "Brokeback Mountain" but I could not quit using my time to explore other galleries.

I think my mom would have appreciated a peek at "The Three Amigos" items reminiscent of the movie's best line "We can SEW!" while my dad might have enjoyed the Clint Eastwood items on display.

Most of these Hollywood keepsakes are arranged chronologically by decade, with a showcase featuring hundreds of Gene Autry collectibles I expect were from the man's personal collection of promotional souvenirs from a decades-long career.

In addition to the entertainment-centric displays, most of The Autry's main floor is dedicated to an impressive collection of fine art. Not to be missed, the ongoing exhibition "New Acquisitions Featuring the Kaufman Collection" (on view through July 9, 2017) has some breathtaking canvases.

I enjoyed learning about newer artists of the American West while also spotting amazing works by Frederick Remington, Georgia O'Keeffe and a modern master, Billy Schenk. Several images I snapped in the galleries may be viewed at the base of this post, and the canvas "Crowd Control" by John Fawcett has an Olympic connection.

Downstairs at The Autry takes visitors through more history of the Old West with impressive displays including a fully restored stagecoach, a rare fire engine of the 1800s, U.S. territorial maps (I spent the most time with a case of Oklahoma cartography items) and early photographs of the Frontier.

And then the museum rolls out the big guns. By this I mean ... lots of guns. All sorts of guns. Major guns. Little guns. Every kind of gun one can imagine. Thousands of guns!

For it is The Autry that is home to the newly-installed (as of 2013) Gamble Firearms Gallery and the ongoing exhibition of its greatest hits "Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact andFiction."

I was in awe of the array of firearms for all to see. To the right: Annie Oakley's gold plated pistols. To the left, one of the (if not THE) first Gatling guns (the original machine gun).

In display after display, guns owned, used by or presented to U.S. presidents or other VIP's. I lost count of all the special guns!

On the heels of a skeet shooting lesson with five-time Olympic medalist Kim Rhode earlier in the week, the collection of rifles and shotguns also caught my eye, as did the Frederick Remington illustrations on view.


Tucked in the corner of another display was a rare N.C. Wyeth canvas (my only complaint from the entire museum visit is that this one painting is placed too far back in a display for close study by art lovers).

All these guns and that Rhode connection made me wonder the extent to which The Autry may have some firearm ties to the Olympics. And with the help of their media relations team, got some answers via email.

According to Joshua Garrett-Davis, assistant Gamble curator of Western history, pop culture and firearms for The Autry, the museum does not possess any Olympic guns, but the museum likely would consider acquiring Olympian-used firearms in the future.

"We would be particularly interested in competition firearms used by athletes from the American West, or else used at one of the Olympics held in the West."

My interpretation of Mr. Garrett-Davis' words is that any Olympian who fired a competition gun in Los Angeles (summers of 1932 or 1984) or as a biathlon shooter at the Winter Games of Calgary (1988), Salt Lake (2002) or Vancouver (2010) may have a potential museum home just waiting for their Olympic guns! I am not sure if guns used at the Mexico City 1968 Games would qualify as "West" but will ask.

Garrett-Davis also reports on other five-ringed connections available at The Autry (I admit to missing these during my first visit, but will be on the lookout next time):

"We do have a few interesting items related to Olympic history," said Garrett-Davis via email. "We have some commemorative screen prints from the 1984 LA Olympics, a belt buckle commemorating Jim Thorpe; a Western-style embroidered jacket designed by Margaret Miele for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics (along with patterns, etc.).

"Perhaps most interestingly, [The Autry has] a Western-style Levi Strauss shirt that was to be worn by athletes in the opening ceremonies of the 1980 Summer Olympics, never used because the USA boycotted (Moscow's) Games," added Garrett-Davis.

I also found The Autry Blog posted on Olympic-related topics including fashion, theater, film, books, Jim Thorpe, Mildred "Babe"Zaharias Didrikson and the famed designer who created the award-winning "Festive Federalist" look of the Games for LA84, Deborah Sussman.

The Autry was only one museum on the agenda during the March 2016 travels to Los Angeles, and its collection is well worth a special trek toward Glendale. I look forward to future visits and getting back in the saddle again.

All photos by Nicholas Wolaver except the very first outdoor image of The Autry, which is via this link.


1 comment:

Slow Marks said...

This place doesn’t have any 'i'm too cool and busy for you' wait staff. As per me, everyone at event venues here is nice, friendly, and helpful and they really seem to like their jobs there and that is important to me. We had an awesome experience here.

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