Michael Jackson and John Wayne in the same exhibit? I expected the Autry National Center across from the LA Zoo in Griffith Park to be about cowboys and the settlement of the West, and it was. But then I saw the sequined glove Jackson wore on a 2002 cover of Vibe magazine in its permanent exhibit celebrating Western movies and wondered. Before that I had visited ANC’s temporary side-by-side exhibits, “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic”, closing January 5, 2014, and “Katsina in Hopi Life”, there until December 1 of this year. They couldn’t be more different. It took me a while to figure out the Autry National Center.
Gene Autry, the man who founded ANC in 1988, was certainly diverse in his interests. Cowboy star, media mogul, Major League baseball team owner (The LA Angels), composer of “Here Comes Santa Claus”, the singer who made “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” a hit, Autry died in 1998 when his project was 10 years old. Joshua, the young man manning the reception desk, told me that his grandfather used to bring him here when he was small and that Gene Autry often showed up to greet guests.
ANC has a new president and CEO, the appropriately named W. Richard West, Jr. In What’s West, ANC’s calendar publication, he vowed to “continue our deep commitment to preserving the legacy, sharing the history, giving voice to the diverse peoples of the west, past and present.” Hence, Michael Jackson meets John Wayne.
President West called Jews/Mosaic the first exhibition to trace the history, growth, and influence of the extensive LA Jewish community. It was among its highly eclectic items that I gaped at 3 of Billy Wilder’s 6 Oscars and read about his Polish roots. Wilder wrote German screenplays before acquiring the 6-month visitor’s visa that brought him to Hollywood and glory.
By the time Joshua told me about his childhood visits, I wasn’t surprised because, almost everywhere I had been in this museum I saw groups of enthralled children. I was totally impressed by The Center’s enthusiastic, talented docents who were making The West come alive with great stories.
The ANC’s lower level is where most of its traditional western history unfolds. But just about the time I started telling myself, “I already knew that,” something unique engaged me, like the guy-magnet Colt collection in the Law and Order room. My 3 favorites, however, were the fanciful Silsby steam pumper, an oversized “Los Angeles” pattern, western bar made in St. Louis, and an outrageously ornate parade saddle that Autry himself donated to the collection. ANC has amassed more than half a million objects in its 25 years.
To celebrate its 25th birthday, The Autry National Center is about to open its first renovation of a permanent gallery. On June 15, 2013, the Irene Helen Jones Parks Gallery of Art will delight visitors with more than 100 works including an Indian Roadmaster motorcycle, jewelry, paintings, native baskets, etc. If my brief glimpse was accurate, it will be as varied as the rest of the Autry National Center.
Certainly not as well-known as Disneyland, the Getty Center, and other LA tourist magnets, ANC is worth checking out. In fact, it’s 5 Compass.