Route 66 was more than a road; it is a record of the changing face of America. It’s captured in "Route 66: The Road and the Romance," an exhibition beginning Sunday and continuing through Jan. 4 at L.A.’s Autry National Center of the American West.
The Autry show brings together the lore and allure of the highway, known as America’s Main Street. The road ran from Chicago to L.A., as Bobby Troup’s song famously said (although the western terminus later moved from 7th and Broadway to Santa Monica).
In the 1920s, the American Assn. of State Highway Officials created the proposal that gave birth to the Mother Road.
By the late '30s, its 2,400 miles were paved and taking travelers through such cities and towns as Springfield in both Illinois and Missouri; Tulsa, Okla.; Amarillo, Texas; Tucumcari, N.M.; Holbrook, Ariz.; and Needles and Barstow in San Bernardino County.
As traffic picked up, enterprising businesspeople began to cater to travelers’ needs with gasoline stations, restaurants and the quaintly named motor court. (Merriam Webster says the term first came into use in 1936. The motor court also was known variously as a motor lodge, tourist court and motor inn, ultimately morphing into "motel.")
It’s the story of the rise of car culture, which gave rise to the most American of traditions: the summer road trip. Goodbye, staycation, hello, vacation.
The “Road and the Romance” strives to capture and explain this sociological sea change, including the 1930s westward migration of Dust Bowl refugees to the promised land of California, the rise of the literary movement epitomized by Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” even a TV show in which Tod and Buz, two handsome young men, cruised the road in a Corvette, schooled by the downtrodden they met.
And then the dream began to die, in many ways a victim of its own success. Increased traffic required larger and safer highways, giving rise to the U.S. interstate system. The road began to disappear, literally — some parts were paved over — and symbolically. The road was decommissioned in 1985.
But the love affair lives on. In this exhibition you’ll see a 1960 Corvette in a nod to Buz and Tod, the Oscar won by John Ford as director of John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath,” signs and guides and a host of memorabilia that tells America’s tale, including some unpleasant chapters.
The museum is also hosting a plethora of programs on the history of the road, beat poetry and of course films, including “Cars,” which introduced us to Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) and the town of Radiator Springs, which once was — what else? — a stopover on Route 66 that was bypassed by the superhighway.
Info: Admission to the museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way, is $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors 60 and older, $4 for children 3-12 and free for veterans, Autry members and children younger than 2. Admission is free the second Tuesday of every month.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times