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Traveling Exhibit Cuts Hollywood Down to Size

April 18, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Who could ever forget the mothership from the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," a twinkling, flying stadium descending toward a group of breathless earthlings?

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History opened a flashy exhibit Thursday called "Hollywood: Legend and Reality," where millions of humans will discover that monstrous spaceship would fit nicely on a kitchen table.

That ferocious ape, King Kong, stands propped up in another display, 18 inches tall.

'No Santa, Either'

"I hope we haven't spoiled your illusions," curator Michael Webb said to an astonished onlooker. "There is no Santa Claus, either."

The nation's appetite for things Hollywood is well sated by this traveling exhibition of 400 objects of art, photographs, posters, costumes, production sketches, special effects models and equipment spanning every era of movie history. The exhibit is scheduled for a six-city American tour, arriving at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in December of 1987 before going on to Japan and perhaps Europe. The exhibit will be in Washington until June 15.

On public display for the first time is the piano from Rick's Cafe in the movie "Casablanca," lent by Dr. Gary Milan, a Beverly Hills dentist.

'Star Wars' Robot

Many of the modern marvels are there: the robot C3PO from "Star Wars," architectural plans and a model of "E.T." and other familiar space beings.

The past is there, too. Seven minitheaters show clips of 44 classic movies. The typed notes and scribbled notations of David O. Selznick planning the production of "Gone With the Wind" estimate salaries of actors (Rhett: $150,000) and list Bette Davis as a possible Scarlett.

Shirley Temple's Maryjane shoes, the Rosebud sled from "Citizen Kane" and Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" can all be seen, along with an Oscar from "Gone With the Wind," and ornate costumes worn by Rudolph Valentino (he, too, was pretty small), Jeanette MacDonald, Ginger Rogers and Mae West.

The exhibition "relives everyone's past," said Milan, who is lending the piano from "Casablanca."

He has seen the movie "close to 76 times," because he is "an incurable romantic," said Milan, who came to Washington for the opening. "I've seen every frame of the movie."

A collector of 18th-Century Americana but not Hollywood memorabilia, Milan decided about three years ago that he wanted to acquire the piano on which the famous song "As Time Goes By" appeared to have been played in the movie. (Actually the song was recorded on another piano and dubbed in, but Milan still wanted the piano seen in the film.)

Milan learned the piano would be on sale at a Los Angeles auction house, and plunked down $2,500 for it. He found that the piano, which is much smaller than normal size, needed restoring. To obtain the special size spare parts he bought two other similar-sized pianos used in Hollywood productions and proceeded to take them apart.

While stripping more than 20 layers of paint off the other two pianos with his scalpel, he discovered to his surprise that one of them was actually the "Casablanca" piano, and not the first one he had bought. Distinguishing marks and paint, and the fact that the top of the piano opened from the back (where Bogart hid the transit papers) made it a certainty. He had paid less than $2,500 for it, and now, fully restored, it has been appraised at $250,000, he said.

A Mystical Experience

Milan feels the discovery of the piano was nothing less than a mystical experience.

"A lot of things about this were predestined," he said. "Somebody--a supreme being--wanted me to do this project."

Usually Milan rotates the three pianos between his home and office, and they can be played. Milan "can't play a note," but others occasionally do.

"When I get married," said Milan, a 47-year-old bachelor, "that piano is going to play that song."

The tiny piano's paint job has been restored to its original salmon color with colorful designs on it, exactly the way it was in the movie.

"People always ask me," Milan said, " 'Wasn't it white? Wasn't it much bigger?' "

The Magic Remains

But that is just another example of Hollywood illusion, where legend collides with reality.

In the exhibit, which is funded by Time Inc., almost everything seems smaller than one had imagined, the way movie stars themselves do. But David Craig, an archivist for lender Lucasfilm Ltd., said that having millions of Americans see the secrets of Hollywood sets will not spoil the magic.

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