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Rounding Up New Heritage of the Old West

The Autry Museum has many reasons to celebrate as it gets ready to mark the 89th birthday of its legendary namesake.

September 22, 1996|Laurie K. Schenden | Laurie K. Schenden is a Times staff writer

'Was there an earthquake?" asks curator James Nottage as he straightens a portrait on Joanne Hale's office wall at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

"Yeah," Hale says, "I walked in."

The comment elicits laughter from Nottage and staff member Carolyn Hom but most heartily from Hale herself. To some, the comment might resonate with more truth than humor. But if Hale didn't have the ability to shake things up, there probably wouldn't be an Autry Museum. As the museum's president, she is the key person responsible for taking the facility beyond a tribute to a beloved 1940s cowboy star to a world-class educational center with a staff of 92 and a budget of $9.5 million a year.

"We never thought of the museum as being about Gene Autry," Nottage says. "It was always about the West. The real West and the movie West."

Gene Autry turns 89 next Sunday. For decades, he has talked about the historical West and spent a lot of time traveling the region when it was still untouched by civilization. He had often talked to his wife, Jackie, and fellow cowboy star Monte Hale and his wife, Joanne, about building a Western heritage museum. Finally, the two women--both experienced corporate types--decided that they had done enough talking. It was time to act.

"We really wanted to do this for Gene, while he was still able to enjoy it," says Hale, looking very much executive material in short-cropped hair and business suit and with her friendly, confident demeanor. "This was his dream."

To make that dream a reality, Jackie Autry and Joanne Hale put on overalls and California Angels T-shirts and began digging through storage houses filled with Autry's memorabilia on the old Melody Ranch in Newhall.

"We went out and bought a 1-ton truck for our trips to the ranch," recalls Hale, who came out of retirement to head the museum. "That was the beginning of our collection. Those days were so much fun."

Eight years after the museum opened, it has surpassed Autry's dream. Not only does it house the collectibles from his movie and television career, but there is much more. What he had originally envisioned as a 35,000-square-foot building is a 148,000-square-foot structure at the edge of Griffith Park. The museum draws more than 430,000 visitors each year; 42,000 of them are schoolchildren.

And the exhibits have to do with a lot more than cowboys and Indians. The subjects have ranged from explorations of Western crafts to the experiences and influence of ethnic pioneers.

"There was a lot of local interest in the [exhibition highlighting] Japanese women and their experiences in the West," Nottage says. "This was an instance where we could tell the public about some aspect that they didn't know about."

And also draw in visitors who might not otherwise come into the "Gene Autry" museum, Hale says. The Japanese Americans who were drawn to that exhibition had previously thought of the museum as a Gene Autry cowboy museum, "and what relationship did that have to them?" Hale says.

That's also the main reason the name of the museum was changed.

"We used 'Gene Autry' deliberately [when the museum opened]," Hale says, "because his name is internationally identifiable. But the perception remained that it is a Gene Autry memorabilia museum. A lot of people are surprised to see that it is a Western heritage museum.

"It was never meant as a shrine or anything else to Gene," Hale adds. "He thought it was a great idea [to change the name to Autry Museum of Western Heritage]. . . . You'll still find a lot about Gene and Roy [Rogers] but also a lot of other things."

The other things are depictions of the "true" West, Nottage says, adding that the museum goes to great pains to research each exhibit.

"And when we do something it's not just the exhibit but the related educational program too," he says.

Children are always in mind, and a current exhibition, "Connecting Our Lives," actually allows fifth- and sixth-graders to delve into their own backgrounds and share what their lives are like in current-day Los Angeles.

"The most beautiful thing about it is that the children . . . had that great balance of doing the research and being proud of their ancestry," Hale says.

The idea behind all of these exhibitions, she adds, is to give visitors the opportunity to see how the history of the West fits in with their own history.

In the museum's attempt to tell aspects of the West that the public ordinarily doesn't hear about, it has attracted the attention and cooperation of other institutions around the world. In fact, a consortium has been formed, Hale says, that includes 10 museums in the United States and Canada.

"You can do so much more together," she says, explaining that the consortium has organized an exhibition on the history of national parks and tourism, coming to the Autry next summer, and another on the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush, for 1998.

As for the museum itself, Hale plans to keep it state-of-the-art by installing interactive videos in all the galleries.

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