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Gallery Displays Actor's Art Talent : Exhibits: George Montgomery's paintings, sculptures and furniture are featured at the Gene Autry museum.

November 29, 1991|MICHAEL ARKUSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actor George Montgomery, 75, can be rediscovered on video. From the late 1930s through the early 1960s, he appeared in about 85 Westerns and musicals.

But Montgomery has found another ticket to posterity--his art.

Last week, the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum opened a new exhibit of his work, "George Montgomery: Actor, Artist, Collector." On display through January, the collection includes Montgomery's sketches, paintings, sculptures and furniture.

"These things will last long after I'm gone," Montgomery said. "You will always be able to touch them."

The exhibit is divided into four sections--his Russian roots and the ranch days in Brady, Mont., his years in Hollywood, his paintings, sculptures and furniture, and the work he collected from other artists, such as Charles M. Russell, Fredric Remington, Frank Schoonover, Thomas Moran and Nicholai Fechin.

In all, the museum is displaying about 60 paintings, 30 sculptures and 30 pieces of furniture. The paintings are mostly oil works while the sculptures are all in bronze.

In an interview, Montgomery seemed more impressed with his art than his acting. In 1937, at 20, he arrived in Los Angeles eager to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Within months, he landed a role as one of the stars of Republic Pictures' 15-episode serial, "The Lone Ranger." He then signed with 20th-Century Fox and began appearing in several pictures a year. He was married from 1943 to 1960 to singer Dinah Shore.

"Acting was always easy for me," Montgomery said. "I just always played myself, and I was always fortunate to have people like Ginger Rogers and Maureen O'Hara working with me."

Art, unlike acting, became a solo operation. Growing up on a ranch in Montana, Montgomery became infatuated with the Western frontier. As a child, he painted scenes of Western life on the window shades in the house. Sixty years later, his sculptures frequently reflected the vivid memories of his ranch days.

After he married Shore, Montgomery began to build his own furniture. Soon he was called upon by friends in the industry to help design their homes and build their furniture. Montgomery helped build pieces for Gregory Peck, Van Johnson and Jack Benny.

In 1974, Montgomery took up sculpting. Altogether, he's made about 45 pieces. The collection includes a five-foot-long re-creation of Custer's Last Stand. Waving the American flag, Custer's soldiers battle in vain against the assault of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. No soldiers survived the historic 1876 confrontation. It took Montgomery a year of 12-hour days to complete the Custer piece.

"A piece like that is unbelievably complex," said James Nottage, the museum's chief curator. "It shows considerable commitment. He's done a lot of research. This gives people a chance to better understand George."

"The only frustrating thing," Montgomery said, "is that the gallery didn't have enough space to hang my oil paintings."

There was enough space, however, for several dozen movie posters that display a long and versatile movie background. Among them: "Orchestra Wives," the 1942 musical featuring the Glenn Miller band, and "Riders of the Purple Sage," in which Montgomery stars as a cowboy who helps a woman rancher battle outlaws.

Along the way, Montgomery became friends with Ronald Reagan, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. In the exhibit, he pays tribute to each of them.

All three appear separately on horseback in bronze pieces he sculpted.

"With Clint, I used a mare," said Montgomery. "He always rode in town on a horse that looked half dead, and then Clint would quickly come to life. I wanted to make him look alert for action at any time."

Reagan's sculpture along with photographs and hand-written letters from the President to Montgomery are in a glass case.

In the 1970s, Montgomery turned his attention to directing and producing low-budget films abroad. His pictures took him to Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

"If I do any more films, it would be for the traveling," Montgomery said.

His artwork, however, shows no signs of slowing down.

"I have commissions that will keep me going for quite a while," said Montgomery, who has had previous exhibits in Montana, Seattle and New York. "It started as a hobby, and I guess it still is."

The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park, will display "George Montgomery: Actor, Artist, Collector" through Jan. 19. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission $6 adults, $4.50 senior citizens and students, $2.50 children. Call (213) 667-2000.

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