Seeing Stars: Hollywood Museums

(now called "The Autry Museum of the American West")
4700 Western Heritage Way (Zoo Drive), in Griffith Park,.
Los Angeles, CA. / (323) 667-2000

The very first hit movie shot in Hollywood was a western ("The Squaw Man"), and over the years the good old cowboy movie has played a big role the history of Tinseltown. Generations of kids thrilled to the adventures of Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger, and the original singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

Well, now Los Angeles has its own Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, where those cowboy movie stars of yesteryear finally get the recognition and appreciation they rightly deserve.

Don't imagine for a moment that this is some small, second-rate undertaking. This is a grand museum, both in size and scope. Walt Disney Imagineering designed the museum's six permanent exhibition areas, and their professionalism shows. Prepare to be surprised by the museum's size and sophistication.

Just inside the main entrance, the museum boasts a spacious, formal lobby with marble floors, staffed by dignified docents in dark suits. And indeed, on this upper-level, they take their art seriously. The large, dimly-lit galleries with dark red carpeting wouldn't seem out of place at L.A.C.M.A. or the Norton Simon Museum of Art.

Downstairs, the atmosphere is a little more informal. Its many permanent galleries flow easily from room to room, circling an open, two-level central court. This vast court boasts a dramatic 140' mural (by Guy Deel) called "Spirits of the West," which runs along three of the four walls, the romantic figures represented by the mural span the history of the West, from the first Spanish missionaries to Clint Eastwood.

Within these galleries you will discover a wealth of Western artifacts: buckskin fringe jackets, saddles, cowboy hats, spurs, mining picks, cavalry swords, Native American crafts, Smith & Wesson revolvers, pioneer portraits, steerhorn parlor chairs, buffalo horn hall-trees, a cigar store wooden Indian, a glass case full of Russell sculptures, and two large Remington bronzes.

There is a "Buffalo Bill Show" exhibit, featuring Annie Oakley's engraved golden pistols given to her by her husband Frank Butler. You'll also find musical instruments, a gold pan with gleaming holographic gold "nuggets," a genuine Gatling gun, a large taxidermied buffalo, a full-size stagecoach drawn by four real (taxidermied) horses, a steam pump fire engine, a saloon with a mahogany bar and roulette wheel, a recreation of the gunfight at the OK corral, and the pistols used by Belle Star and members of The Wild Bunch and the Dalton Gang.

Elsewhere, you'll find branding irons, lassos, stoves, barbed wire, saddles, bridles, roping dummies, a longhorn bull, and a chuck wagon. There's even a Western Legacy Theater, which uses an unusual 3D projection system to show visitors a film about pioneer struggles on the plains.

The museum's "Spirit of Imagination" gallery explores the way Western movies were made. It is designed to resemble a movie studio set of an Old Western town, complete with boardwalk and storefronts. Up on the balcony of one of the set buildings are mannequins of a cameraman and director, who "film" the scene below. The store windows are chock full of movie props and cameras; an interactive exhibit lets kids sit in a saddle and electronically become part of a TV Western chase scene (through the use of the blue-screen technique). Press a button, and another video monitor will show you some of the tricks used by daring stunt men in these popular horse operas.

Just around the corner, the movie theme continues in a series of exhibits dedicated to Western films. They even have the original camera DeMille used to film "The Squaw Man." You'll find special exhibits on B-movie western stars, featuring costumes & posters from William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy and Ken Maynard.

Another exhibit spotlights the Singing Cowboys, with clothes, records and sheet music from Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Rex Allen, Johnny Bond, and even John Wayne (as "Singing Sandy Saunders"!)

The Epic Westerns exhibit shows you the costumes and gunbelts worn by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Clark Gable, Paul Newman, & Gary Cooper in classics like "High Noon" and "Stagecoach."

There is also a nostalgic display featuring the kind of merchandise once offered to the young fans of Western movie stars, from milk cartons bearing Gene Autry's picture, to an entire bedroom set based around Hopalong Cassidy, including western-themed comic books, costumes, toy guns, "Big Books," lunch pails, and "Davy Crockett" coonskin caps.

Another exhibit displays the original costumes and guns used in popular Western TV shows, such as "Wyatt Earp," "Bat Masterson," "The Lone Ranger," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Gunsmoke," "The Big Valley," "The Cisco Kid," "The Rifleman," and "Hopalong Cassidy." A separate collection focuses on the days of the radio westerns; the display includes radio scripts, microphones, and props from in radio dramas, such as coconut shells used to simulate hoofbeats, and blanks for gunshots.

Each of these exhibits contains its own small video monitor. Push a button, and you will see a short, entertaining video relating to that particular exhibit. (In the room devoted to TV Cowboys, for instance, the monitor displays video clips from popular television westerns.)

And that just scratches the surface of all that the museum has to offer. You'll be dazzled by the scope of the many exhibits, and by their state-of-the-art design. In fact, one problem is that there is so much to see here that it is almost impossible to see it all in a single visit.

Gene Autry, the man, was an astounding Hollywood success story in his own right. Like many Hollywood success stories, he was discovered by accident. He was working in a Kansas telegraph office, when none other than Will Rogers (*) overheard him singing, and suggested that Gene try his luck in show biz. From 1937 to 1942, Autry placed first among Western movie stars, making hundreds of carefree shoot-em-ups. He had his footprints and six-guns immortalized in the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and he was awarded more "stars" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame than any other performer. He was also a noted songwriter, and his recording of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is an all-time Christmas classic. He wrote "Here Comes Santa Claus" after riding in the annual Santa Claus Lane Parade (now called The Hollywood Christmas Parade).  But when his acting and singing career came to an end, Gene Autry was just getting started. He invested his money well, and in his latter years he was one of the richest men in California, with an estimated worth of over $100 million. He formed Golden West Broadcasting, and owned the KTLA-TV studios (Channel 5) and KMPC radio for many years, as well as the California Angels baseball team.

But the Autry Museum isn't just about Gene Autry. Far from it. In fact, Gene was surprisingly modest, given the circumstances; only a tiny portion of the museum was dedicated to his own career.

And the museum isn't just about Hollywood cowboys. The "Autry Museum of the American West" (as it is now called) is also devoted to the history of real Old West, in all its splendor: cowboys, Indians, trappers, frontiersmen, Colt revolvers, buffalo stampedes, stagecoaches... If those rugged images excite you, then this is just the spot for you.

The museum has changed its name a few times since its opening.

Originally called the "Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage", it later was renamed "The Museum of the American West" and then, after having merged with L.A.'s venerable Southwest Museum of the American Indian, it was called simply: "The Autry National Center".  Most recently, the name was changed again (hopefully, for the last time) to "The Autry Museum of the American West".

The museum is quite impressive, and well worth a visit. And if you're a Gene Autry fan, you'll love the giant bronze statue of the singing cowboy himself - and his horse Champion - out in the main courtyard. You can even have a light meal nearby at the museum's Golden Spur cafeteria.

Hours: Open Tuesday through Friday, Fri: 10 AM to 4 PM, and Saturday-Sunday: 10 AM to 5 PM. Closed on Mondays (except select Monday holidays). On Summer Thursdays, they remain open until 8 PM.

Parking: Free parking in large lot.

Admission Price:

    $10.00 for adults.
    $6.00 for seniors (60+) & students (with ID).
    $4.00 for kids (2-12).
    Children under 12 free (as are active military, veterans and peace officers.)
    (The second Tuesday of each month offers free admission.)

 Getting there: The museum is located right across the street (east) from the entrance to the Los Angeles Zoo, near the junction of the Golden State (5) Freeway and the Ventura (134) Freeway. / From Hollywood, take the Hollywood Freeway north to the Ventura (134) Freeway west. Go west (about four and a half miles) to the Victory Drive exit. Immediately turn left (east) on Zoo Drive, and follow Zoo Drive about one mile to the museum, which will be on your left (west) side. / From most other areas, take the Golden State (5) Freeway north to the Zoo Drive exit.

[For more information on this subject, you can access the official Autry Museum website

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