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Movie History Takes Center Stage at London Museum

Times Staff Writer

Designer Neal Potter spent more than a year translating other men’s dreams and documents into this city’s new Museum of the Moving Image. His working credo, written in block letters on a piece of tape across his drafting table, was a simple one: “Don’t forget the magic!”

They didn’t. Uniformed guards have been replaced by costumed actors who oversee everything from Hollywood sound stages to Russian railroad cars stocked with propaganda films. Six huge statues of silent-film stars support a ceiling papered with mug shots. Even the museum’s high-tech control center has been turned into an exhibit.

Run by the British Film Institute, the museum opened last September and had more than 165,000 visitors its first four months. Potter and museum co-founder Leslie Hardcastle believed they had “a magical story to tell and we shouldn’t become too academic or downbeat,” Potter says. “This was entertainment, fantasy and art.”

More than 90 TV and film screens broadcast images drawn from, among others, “The Birth of a Nation,” British newsreels and films by French directors Renoir and Clair. Potter estimates about 50 miles of cables and laser discs eliminate rewind time. Visitors can star in TV and films, then play back their own work instantly.

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The museum capitalizes on an apparently insatiable fascination with movie history and memorabilia. It opened about the same time as New York’s American Museum of the Moving Image, run out of a former movie studio in Astoria, Queens, and in Los Angeles, the Hollywood Exposition broke ground in March on a Hollywood Boulevard site near Mann’s Chinese Theater. The Exposition, focusing on film, TV, radio and recording arts, is operating out of donated office space at Paramount, but president Phyllis Caskey says the $22-million, 31,000-square-foot first phase could open in 1992.

Thus far, the London museum’s mission is more global than that of its American counterparts. A large display on the making of a TV serial may center on “Coronation Street,” Granada TV’s long-running drama, but there are still many U.S. references, including information on the 1959 TV quiz-show scandals. French films go as far back as the turn of the century, and films of the ‘30s are shown above a miniature model of Parisian rooftops.

“The thing I respect most about MOMI is that in spite of the considerable wealth of material they covered, there’s a coherence about the experience,” says Malibu-based Barry Howard, who will design the proposed Hollywood museum. “You can trace what’s happening in an easy way.”

Getting there wasn’t so easy, however. Museum founders Hardcastle, controller of the British Film Institute South Bank, and David Francis, curator of the National Film Archive, started planning the museum more than 10 years ago, but it took all that time to raise the money. The museum’s start-up costs of 12 million ($18 million) came entirely from the private sector, including such donors as J. Paul Getty Jr.

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The 30,000-square-foot museum is tucked under Waterloo Bridge in the massive South Bank Arts Centre that also houses the National Theatre and Hayward Gallery. Mostly chronological, the museum’s displays start with an image of the human eye, then move on to Asian shadow plays. Besides tracing how the shadow plays moved on to Europe, the museum documents such things as magic lanterns, the French Phantasmagoria and the zoopraxiscope of British photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

They didn’t forget early films either. Photo stills from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, “The Birth of a Nation,” are accompanied by a page enumerating such statistics as the film’s cost of $500,000. (The film employed 18,000 people and 3,000 horses; it took 200 seamstresses two months to make the costumes.)

The fare varies. In the avant-garde section, there’s a reproduction of the robot from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” looking down from a landing. Not too far away is a huge padded hand crawling with bugs; it sets the mood for the grisly film segment from Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou” playing on a near-by monitor. Pictures from Salvador Dali’s surrealist dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” are on a wall above a couch that Dali once designed to represent Mae West’s lips.

Inside a door marked “casting office” is a suitably red-carpeted room full of movie star lore such as the metamorphosis of Theodosia Goodman, daughter of a Cincinnati tailor, into Theda Bara. Among the photos: Harold Lloyd pool side in Benedict Canyon with “one of his 65 Great Danes.”

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A barn-like room becomes a Hollywood sound stage with assorted film departments on all sides. There’s a re-created story board from “The Wizard of Oz” showing a matte painting of Dorothy and friends in front of the Yellow Brick Road; it backs up to a floor plan of the interior of the breakfast room from “Citizen Kane.” In the adjoining costume department, Fred Astaire’s tail coat and trousers from a 1936 film are on display. A video in the makeup department starts when your body weight descends on the chair in front of the makeup-mirror-cum-video screen.

From the sound stage, you exit through the glass doors just under a full-size marquee advertising Claire Trevor and John Wayne in Walter Wangers’ “Stagecoach.” But the ‘30s facade of the Odeon is deceptive. Inside you see no movies but instead an award-winning demonstration of the Baird TV system and other facts and artifacts about the early days of television.

Ever wonder what people thought about TV at its start? Right next to a display of early TV sets of every size and style--all of them tuned at that moment to Phil Silvers as Sgt. Ernie Bilko--are some early comments. Frank Lloyd Wright called it “chewing gum for the eyes,” and Bertrand Russell was even more damning: “Television will be of no importance in your lifetime or mine.”

Display panels also detail the televised coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June, 1953; an audience of 200 million people in Europe and the United States made the coronation the biggest event in broadcasting history at that time. Panels similarly recall that on Sept. 1, 1939, the BBC was ordered to cease transmission because its broadcasts would have provided easy targets for enemy aircraft. On June 7, 1946, the BBC came back on with the same Mickey Mouse cartoon it was showing when it went down in 1939.

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But the reading material is clearly secondary to the viewing material. Potter figures most people have short concentration spans “and become quite lazy in a museum setting,” so exhibits are not only as visual as possible, but short and visual. Twenty-four hours of British TV is condensed to three minutes in one exhibit, for instance, while a film depicting the history of film sound rushes by in nine.

There’s plenty of time to linger in the gift shop, however, with its assorted items sporting Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit logos, not to mention its date book from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Or in the 3,000-square-foot temporary exhibition showing--extended until at least Aug. 30--"The Nine Worlds of Charlie Chaplin,” an exhibit on the actor’s life and career, including photographs, film clips, and personal belongings.

The museum’s attendance is nearing the half-million mark, and Potter says many visits run as long as five hours apiece.


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