Nautical History With Hollywood Touch : Museum Works to Become Model Showplace

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum at the foot of 6th Street in San Pedro has gone through some tough sailing and it still has little funding, but it is making its way with the help of donations and volunteers.

Housed in an airy building overlooking the channel, the museum features the nautical history of San Pedro and the harbor area. But it is also an eclectic--sometimes even eccentric--collection of not just maritime memorabilia, but also some of Hollywood's best seagoing fantasies.

Shirlee Sawers, the museum's interim director, said she and her staff are working hard to create a better museum, and in time she expects it to be a special place.

"I want it to be an alive museum, a moving museum," she said.

Staunch Defender

William Olesen, the museum's primary historian and a driving force behind the volunteer staff, staunchly defends the museum's displays and artwork.

"Anything that is educational or teaches people something is worthy," he said. "We don't classify with the Smithsonian Institution."

The museum attracts more than 100,000 visitors and schoolchildren a year and is, in Sawers' words, "still very young," with a long way to go.

The museum, which opened in January, 1980, in the old Terminal Island ferry berth, has since become a shelter for paintings, models, maps, drawings and a hodgepodge of unique odds and ends.

There is work by the famed naval artist Arthur Beaumont and ship models carved from whale bone. There is a miniature of the superliner Poseidon, a ship that never existed except in Hollywood, where it sailed into a tidal wave in the title role of "The Poseidon Adventure." There is also the "Penguin Submarine," the hide-out for the villain Penguin from the television series "Batman."

Model of Titanic

Dominating the center of one room is a seven-foot-long replica of the Titanic. The model was built by Roberto Pirrone, who started it when he was 14 years old. Sawers said Pirrone, now 28, comes in occasionally to add more touches to the ship. He is also working on a model of the Lusitania for the museum.

Not on display but stored for future viewing is an authentic Tahitian skirt made of shells about 1952 and an 8-year-old blue Merchant Marine officer's uniform.

When donation material lacks interest or historical significance, the museum can find itself in a delicate situation, so donations made in what Sawers called the spirit of love are shown in an upstairs room where people can still see their projects in the museum.

The collection's wide variety is partly the result of the museum's dependence on donations.

Money From City

The museum works with $80,000 a year from the city to pay the salaries of Sawers and her two assistants and to buy the materials needed to build and upgrade the displays and keep the building shipshape. Donations are taken at the door, adding $300 to $400 a month to the museum's coffers. To augment that income, Sawers has opened the museum for receptions, concerts, weddings and other functions.

Volunteers, including area residents who work in maritime industries, donate their time and skills. For instance, most of the glass and wooden cases for the models that line the museum were either donated or built by people working for no pay. The Friends of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, which searches for new donations, also runs a museum store, organizes fund-raisers and publishes a museum newsletter, the Compass Rose.

Sawers said she believes the museum is on the right track.

"It's for the people to come in and enjoy, and go out and say they saw a wonderful museum and they learned a lot about the history of maritime," she said.

Sawers admitted that the museum has not reached that point yet, but quickly added, "we're pretty close."

Museum's Beginning

Early in the 1970s, Los Angeles City Council member John Gibson threw his weight behind the idea of a maritime museum to complement the Cabrillo Beach Marine Museum in San Pedro, which features local sea life.

After spending more than $3 million on the Cabrillo museum, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners was not too excited about spending much more on another museum. Other city agencies declined to take it under their wings. Finally, the County Parks and Recreation Department, aided by a $1-million federal grant, took over and opened the museum four years ago.

Edward Hauck, who spent many years as an aide to Gibson, was named curator. He designed the museum's look and obtained many of the original donations. Hauck died about two years ago and Sawers, who also worked in Gibson's office, has been the acting curator since.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World