When Ron Lane opened his Museum of World Wars in Buena Park in July, 1976, he said it housed the largest private exhibit of military memorabilia and hardware in the nation.
On display were tanks, a pair of halftracks, armored cars, staff cars, an amphibious landing craft and other military vehicles, posters, firearms, field equipment, medals, insignia, propaganda leaflets, books and hundreds of weapons and uniforms from wars dating from the 18th century to 1945.
Back then, it took up 20 rooms, and all you could do was look at it.
Today, if you're in the market for, say, a German military band uniform, circa 1938, or the top half of a Norden bombsight, Lane will probably sell both to you. Because of a decline in visitors to the museum since the summer of 1984, Lane has moved the museum to smaller quarters and has announced that many of the pieces in the collection are for sale.
"The overhead here is about $5,500 a month," said Lane, "and it wasn't making it as just a museum. The Olympics in '84 just killed business. We were expecting great crowds, but everyone stayed away. But I kept thinking positive and stayed open."
In January, Lane moved part of his collection to smaller quarters about half a block east of Knott's Berry Farm, where it now takes up nearly every square inch of one large display room and a storage room in back. The rest of the collection--about 95% of it, said Lane, including a 1942 American halftrack, a 1944 Jeep and a 1943 M3-A3 Stewart tank--is stored in warehouses.
"I've still got so much stuff, you can't believe it," Lane said.
The items in the building on La Palma Avenue are only the tip of the iceberg. Draped on hangers around the room are about 100 uniforms, mostly from World War II. Lane guessed there were at least as many helmets and nearly 200 uniform caps and hats, including one that formerly belonged to an admiral of the Spanish navy who served in the Spanish-American War. Other rarer uniforms are displayed on mannequins, such as one once worn by a Portuguese volunteer in Napoleon's army.
Other unexpected bits of exotica line the display cases, including a wartime pack of Old Gold cigarettes ("The Treasure of Them All") and a Berlin street sign reading "Herm.-Goring-Strasse" that Lane said was brought home by a GI.
Lane, a former Air Force pilot, said he began collecting military memorabilia almost from the cradle, beginning in 1944 when he was 6.
"My uncle, who was a Seabee in World War II, gave me his helmet and his canteen," Lane said. "And I was greatly influenced by the war movies in the 1940s. When I was a kid, other kids wanted toys, but I had the foresight to know that the war souvenirs would one day be worth more than the toys.
"By the time I got to high school, I could find no place on the West Coast to go to do research on the subject of world wars, so when I was 15, I made a promise to myself and my parents and teachers to have a place here on the West Coast where kids could come to study."
Over the years, he amassed the collection mostly by the barter system, "by wheeling and dealing with other collectors." He dedicated the museum "to all the fallen peoples of the world" who died in time of war.
Today, Lane said he's looking either for "a benefactor" to help underwrite the cost of the museum's overhead or for a buyer for the entire collection. He is quick to set its worth at $1.5 million.
MUSEUM OF WORLD WARS AT A GLANCE
Where: 7884 E. La Palma Ave., Buena Park (half a block east of Beach Boulevard).
Admission: $2 for adults, $1 for children 6-12 during winter; children 5 and under free.
Hours: Winter hours 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; summer hours 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed on major holidays.
Items on view in collection: Uniforms, weapons, decorations, insignia, posters, firearms, books and other military memorabilia dating from the 18th century to 1945. Many items for sale.