Master of the macabre Vincent Price was guest of honor at the Bowers Museum on Friday night.
But despite his ghoulish image--and despite steadily lagging attendance and the recent dismantling of the Bowers Museum Foundation by the City of Santa Ana--Price wasn't there to announce the museum's demise, to say, if you will, "Nevermore."
Horrors, no! The actor came not to bury Bowers, but to praise it, and to help the institution celebrate its golden anniversary.
Still, quasi-torrential rains didn't prove the only chilling aspect of the evening, which was to launch Bowers 36/86, a weekend celebration of the arts focusing on art and artifacts gathered over 50 years.
"First they picked me up in a limousine," said Price, spoofing his well-known penchant for the morbid; "it looked like a hearse. Then when I got here, they pinned this thing on me"--he indicated his VIP ribbon--"at first I thought it meant 'rest in peace.' "
The party was alive and kicking. The weekend celebration, however, which was to take place in the outdoor courtyard, kicked the bucket, which happened to be full of water: Due to inclement weather, those festivities were postponed until May 18, to coincide with Museum Day.
Price, a noted art lecturer--"I know a lot more about art than I know about my profession," he admitted--has had items from his pre-Columbian collection displayed at Bowers; he recently donated a priceless African artifact, a three-foot-high statue of a woman.
But his reasons for attending the party were actually by way of thanks to the museum staff, which helped him store a somewhat larger piece of ethnic art: Price, it turns out, collects totem poles. "Doesn't everybody?" he asked, adding that his example from Alaska was 23 feet high. "Anybody who's ever owned a 23-foot totem pole knows how difficult owning one, and moving one, can be," he said.
The retrospective display does, in fact, include totems (from New Guinea) as well as such diverse items as packing box labels and a 13-pound gold nugget--"the largest in existence," the museum's February newsletter advertised--found in 1977 near Mojave.
Outgoing museum director William Lee, who intends to return to academia, offered a rosy prognosis for the museum: He predicted Bowers "will grow and grow and grow and become the center focus of this, the most dynamic county in America, if not . . . the universe."
Santa Ana Mayor Daniel E. Griset introduced Vice Mayor P. Lee Johnson, City Council members and Mildred Collins, who was on hand when the museum opened in 1936. "That was quite different," recalled Collins, 90. "I was young then."
The City Council has appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee to study the purpose of Bowers Museum and to develop future programs; attorney Michael Silvas said committee members are looking forward to a tour this weekend of the San Diego and San Francisco museums.
Museum Districts Concept
"We're looking at the concept of museum districts as well as ways of financing," Silvas said. "We'll also be visiting the Santa Barbara museum in the near future. Did you know that in Santa Barbara the museum gets part of the bed tax?" (Silvas was referring to the assessments levied by cities on hotels and other lodging establishments.)
Committee chairman Hector Godinez elaborated on the idea of a museum district. "We're investigating the possibility of a Bowers complex--three or four museums in a campuslike setting, each within walking distance," Godinez said. "A children's museum, say, a fine arts or contemporary art museum, an ethnic museum. . . . "
Godinez, by the way, said he feels something of a bond with Price. "Not only are we both patrons of the arts," he said, "but just two weeks ago the Board of Supervisors appointed me to the Orange County Cemetery Board."
Hors d'oeuvres for the party were prepared by Chez Vous Caterers in Laguna Beach. Though only six years in the area, Chez Vous is no neophyte outfit, as evidenced by the tasty little meatballs.
"I'm the seventh generation in my family who does it," confirmed Nice-born Francois Coinon. "In fact, we recently celebrated our 252nd-year anniversary party. We invited the oldest, most established caterers in Orange County--you know, in business for 10 years, 12 years--they all said, this is embarrassing!" Chez Vous continues operations in France and in Italy.
Although invitations mentioned a ticket price of $100 per person, a dearth of responses inspired a letter of apology from the City Council rescinding the fee for museum members. Most of the 400 or so who attended were members; the money that was raised will benefit the museum's acquisition fund.
Among the guests was the museum's chief curator, Armand Labbe, who said he is mounting a pre-Columbian ceramics show in September, "the largest of its kind ever assembled."