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Growth Industry : Museum That Expands Children's Imaginations Plans Larger Venue

January 01, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Sana Filatoff, wearing a dark veil over a pair of granny glasses, scooted her wheelchair energetically across the floor. "I'm a rich old widow," the 10-year-old soberly announced.

Nearby, two young boys in a small sailboat were pulling Velcro fish out of a sea of blue sponges.

And across the room, a grandmother sat watching two little girls pretending to have their eyes examined in a real optometrist's chair.

"This is probably the best kept secret in Long Beach," said Virginia Johnston, principal of a local Christian school.

When Sally Sherlock and Liz Kennard first conceived of the Long Beach Children's Museum, they had nothing more than a little time and lots of vision. Relying on contributions, the pair spent 1 1/2 years scraping together $3,000 to open the place in a cozy donated room at the Marina Pacifica Mall.

Now, one year later, they say, about 33,000 children and adults have paid $1 apiece to pass through the doors of this nonprofit educational institution. And if the founders have their way, the museum will move to an expanded interim facility within 18 months and a permanent 27,000-square-foot home by 1997.

"We opened up here because people needed to have a preview of what is possible," said Sherlock, president of the museum's board of directors.

Added Kennard, the institution's full-time manager: "Long Beach needed a children's museum."

That realization came to them, the women say, after Kennard--whose son attends a local Montessori school owned by Sherlock--volunteered to chauffeur some of the school's students on a trip to the children's museum in Los Angeles. "I loved the museum, but I didn't like driving to L. A.," she said.

By making a series of personal appeals, the women were able to garner the initial start-up money, as well as the space donated by the mall and a collection of exhibits donated by various area merchants and public agencies.

Since then, they say, the museum has cost about $3,400 a month to operate, money that comes from admissions, personal donations, gift shop sales and fees paid by the institution's 160 members.

"The museum is making it," Kennard said. "It takes major hustling and it's very stressful, but we are surviving."

Arrival of the institution's first anniversary--celebrated in November by a gathering of about 1,000 people--marked the beginning of a new era in its history. Now that the museum has a track record, the women say, it will initiate an aggressive campaign to win corporate donations and public agency grants, as well as kicking off a series of community fund-raisers. The first is a $5-a-ticket concert featuring the International Children's Choir and the Long Beach Ballet on Jan. 18 at the Pan American Community Center.

Major Drive Planned

The initial goal of all these activities, the women say, is to move the museum to an interim facility at an as-yet undetermined spot in about a year. Then, they say, they will begin a major campaign to raise enough capital to either renovate or construct the permanent 27,000-square-foot site by 1997.

Ultimately, according to Sherlock, the museum hopes to draw about 250,000 visitors a year and operate on an annual budget of $1 million.

"That's what we feel Long Beach can handle," she said.

In the meantime, the museum in the mall--open 20 hours a week from Thursday through Sunday--seems to be handling its clients quite well.

Experiences Broadened

"It gives the kids exposure to a lot of things they wouldn't experience otherwise," said Helen Kotkaff, a Montebello mother there recently with her three children, ages 5 to 10. "They seem to be having a good time."

Sana's mother, Susan, added: "It's a great place for (kids) to use their imaginations."

Among the dress-up clothes on hand for the museum's young patrons to model are elegant ladies' outfits and an array of police, sanitation and postal workers' uniforms. The museum also features the completely outfitted optometrist's chair, a doctor's office including wheelchairs, crutches and a working X-ray viewer, a corner where toddlers can play with soft building blocks, various arts and craft displays, and an exhibit in which young visitors can experiment with different smells.

Some Original Creations

While many of the exhibits are patterned after similar ones that Sherlock and Kennard saw during numerous visits to children's museums throughout the country, others are the original creations of local artists who volunteered their time and talents. The purpose of it all, Sherlock said, is to give children a "hands-on" experience that will leave them with a positive impression of what goes on in a museum.

"We want to create a place where you can come and feel like you've enhanced your child's world and contributed to his education," she said. "We want to give them an educational, cultural experience; to demystify the world in which they live."

But the ultimate compliment came from Kotkaff's 10-year-old daughter, Irene, who spent her afternoon, among other things, parading around in elegant high heels and hats, entertaining a friend with puppet shows and trying her hand at walking with the aid of crutches.

Asked how she liked the museum, the girl responded without hesitation. "It's rad," she said. "I like everything. It's totally No. 1."

Museum Information

Where: Accessible through entrances 3 or 5 of the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6336 E. Pacific Coast Highway.

When: Open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; also open on Wednesdays for group visits by appointment only.

Admission: $1 per person, all ages.

Information: 431-1084.

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