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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : OUTINGS : Placing Important Events of the Past in a Theatrical Context : Monologuist George S. Stuart uses intricately designed historical figures to add an entertainment element to episodes of long ago.

October 19, 1995|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Famed monologuist George S. Stuart will discuss "The Conquest of the Americas" on Saturday during a presentation at his Gallery of Historical Figures near Ojai.

Stuart has created some 300 figures since 1953, and they are divided into several specific groups. There is the Renaissance and Reformation, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Hanovers, the Romanovs, the fall of the czars, American patriots, American founders, Abraham Lincoln and so on.

The majority of his figures are housed at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, where displays are rotated every few months.

As a youngster, Stuart was obsessed with the palace at Versailles, and began reconstructing detailed replicas of the various rooms. This succeeded in separating him from his peers, the majority of whom felt throwing a baseball was more important than Marie Antoinette's bedroom.

Later, Stuart studied history and foreign relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and at the University of California, and became a staff member at the Smithsonian Institution. Then, heading west, Stuart ended up in Ojai and created the first of his historical figures in 1953.

"I had an academic background and was very interested in the theater, even though I wasn't particularly good at it," said Stuart during a recent chat at his gallery. "I was always one of those people who could do things with my hands."

Each figure is intricate and realistic, and seems to fall somewhere between an official court portrait and a political cartoon. Each is constructed to one-quarter scale, or three inches to the foot, and is clothed in period dress down to the smallest detail. Asked how long it takes to create one figure, Stuart relied quickly, "Too long."

Stuart, after 30 years of lecturing, seeks to make history entertaining to those who think they hate history. People are encouraged to ask questions. A Stuart presentation is not unlike a movie with his figures serving as the actors.

"A movie? I would like to think it's just like that, and we do have an intermission in the middle of the 90-minute presentation," Stuart said.

"I'm a monologuist. I try to say something relevant about these characters that crossed the continent to the Pacific. And it's all above the waist, so it's family entertainment."

Stuart doesn't use Lewis and Clark, but 11 other explorers--some well-known, some relatively obscure--populate the current exhibition.

Eusebio Kino, for example, was a Spanish missionary who explored large portions of the Southwest and Baja California. Sir Alexander Mackenzie was the first European to cross the North American continent. Jedediah Strong Smith was the first mountain man to reach California, carrying his rifle, his Bible, the clothes on his back and little else.

Naturally, Father Junipero Serra, founder of the missions and the man immortalized in front of Ventura City Hall, is among Stuart's creations.

"Well, I don't have negative feelings toward him," Stuart said. "He was carrying out a mandate from the king of Spain to make preparations to settle Alta California before the British, the Portuguese or the Russians did.

"Now they only got as far as the Bay Area and they didn't go very far inland. The orders were to convert the Indians and not to torture them.

"They treated the Indians, by and large, like they treated their own children at home. Of course, the Indians hated being imprisoned in the missions and died like flies."

On Kit Carson, Stuart noted that he was ". . . the kind of man other men love, sort of nonverbal, plodding, taciturn . . . but a man of honor."

Because of explorations that made him forever known as "The Pathfinder," John C. Fremont figures prominently in California's past as well as Stuart's exhibit.

His involvement in the Bear Flag Revolt and other machinations got him in Oliver North-scale trouble, but brought the Golden State closer to statehood. A yellow wildflower, fremontia, is named for him.

"The years that have followed the 'conquest' have brought a gradual halt to the grossest violation of nature in North America . . ." reads a line from the exhibit.

These words from a man who thinks Ojai is far too large, who fondly recalls the good old days before we got here and uses words such as "ghastly" or "disaster" when describing the current patterns of growth. While the current "conquest" involves invaders from Los Angeles, overall, said Stuart, things haven't really changed so much in 200 years.

"Oh, it was much nicer then in this area," he said. "No roads, no people, a little oil seeping up here and there. I remember it well."

Stuart clearly is happy enough with the local population to want 25 of them to come visit his exhibit.

According to Carmen Robertson, who runs the gallery, "Mr. Stuart is a curmudgeon who is held in a great deal of admiration and respect. And (renowned potter) Beatrice Wood once said that he's the only authentic genius in Ojai."

Replied Stuart, "Ms. Robertson's cup is half full, mine has been kicked over . . ."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

DETAILS

* WHAT: A lecture on "The Conquest of the Americas" by George Stuart.

* WHERE: George Stuart's Gallery of Historical Figures, McNell at Reeves roads near Ojai.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

* HOW MUCH: $6, which includes refreshments.

* CALL: 646-6339 or 646-6574.

* FYI: Reservations required.

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