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Go West, Young Mutant

In Southern California, Sci-Fi Found a Space in the Sun

November 24, 2002|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Science fiction wasn't born in Southern California, but it definitely grew up here. By way of film and television, Hollywood unleashed pulp fiction's time travelers, triffids and tentacled mutants on the three-dimensional universe and took pop culture to the outer limit. That proud heritage is being celebrated in "Barsoom to Blade Runner: Science Fiction in Southern California," on display at the Fullerton Museum Center. Through books, photos, manuscripts, costumes, props and models from film and television, the exhibit excavates the missing link between literature and the final frontier.

Curator John Karwin got the idea for the show two years ago after viewing the staggering book and memorabilia collection of science fiction guru Forrest J. Ackerman. Karwin also culled material from the Pollak Library at Cal State Fullerton, which houses an extensive science fiction repository that includes Ray Bradbury's original manuscript for "The Fireman," which became "Fahrenheit 451," and onetime Fullerton resident Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" which became the 1982 film "Blade Runner." Karwin credits the library collection to Dr. Willis E. McNelly, who taught one of the first courses in science fiction at Fullerton in the 1960s.

As source material, the exhibit features early edition books originating outside Southern California, such as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine." A 1930s book illustration of Frankenstein as a long-haired ogre is juxtaposed with the Frankenstein mask prototype created by makeup artist Jack Pierce for Universal Pictures' classic 1931 film starring Boris Karloff. Pierce consulted with surgeons on the concept, which entered the collective unconscious as the archetypal horror-show Frankenstein. "Seventy years of product is based on that design," says Karwin.

Karwin tapped 15 different collectors for the display items. "It's all local collections, from Woodland Hills to San Diego," he says. Time travelers can see the original spaceship from "The Day the Earth Stood Still"; the fiberglass Devil's Tower and a maquette of the mother ship from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"; a spacesuit from "2001: A Space Odyssey"; the flying sub from "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea"; and an outfit from "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger," circa early 1950s. The sparkling gold tunic William Shatner wore in "Mirror, Mirror," episode #39 of the original "Star Trek," is on view along with a Klingon Battle Cruiser, a phaser pistol and a Tribble.

At times, the speculative and the fantastic seem to be elements of the Southern California landscape. Part of the show's title salutes "Tarzan" author Edgar Rice Burroughs' other thrilling adventure series, the epic saga of dashing ex-Confederate Army Capt. John Carter, who founds a dynasty on the red planet of Barsoom, known to us earthlings as Mars. Burroughs moved to California in 1919 and was elected mayor of Malibu Beach in 1933. The city of Tarzana was once "Tarzana Ranch," his 550-acre estate in the San Fernando Valley. L. Frank Baum, author of the "Wizard of Oz" books, shot silent films in Southern California. Baum died in Hollywood in 1919 and is interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale. "Southern California is a fantasy land," Karwin says. "A metaphor for what's next for humans. It's sort of the last frontier of the West, being optimistic about the future. It's about being able to dream."


"Barsoom to Blade Runner: Science Fiction in Southern California," through Jan. 26, 2003. Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton; (714) 738-6545.

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