Summer is the season to load the family into the car and head for the amusement parks. But if you've been to Magic Mountain and Universal Studios so often that the old fun mobile steers itself, it may be time to check out something a little different.
Largely undiscovered is the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park, which opened 1 1/2 years ago. The museum offers a growing number of programs and live events in addition to its permanent and traveling exhibits. Anyone with a modicum of interest in the Old West will find the museum a welcome change from the standard summer attraction circuit.
The Autry is a good deal cheaper than amusement parks--adults $4.75, children 12 and under $2--and much less crowded. Some of the performances require separate admission, but the cost can be as little as $1. Except for private events (the museum can be rented for an evening), the programs have some connection to the settling of the West.
"The public events have to fit with the museum's mission and our particular museum's collection," said Cynthia Harnisch, director of education. "But the period we cover is the mid-16th Century to the present. With a collection that broad, there are a lot of programs we can have."
Appearing at the museum this weekend, for example, are a Navajo storyteller and a band that includes a medley of TV Western themes in its repertoire. Harnisch said both programs fit easily into the museum's mission, which is: "to collect, preserve, display, interpret and conduct research on the history of the trans-Mississippi West."
Shoot-'em-up movies and television shows are fair game because they are interpretations of the West. In this regard, one might expect the museum to be a monument to its chief benefactor, Gene Autry. But Autry memorabilia is confined to one small exhibit room.
Performances take place in the 200-seat Wells Fargo Theater, in a large mural-walled room called Heritage Court or in a plaza.
Geraldine Keams, the Navajo storyteller, said the Autry is willing to present all sides of the Old West and its influence on the present-day U.S.
"You would think that a Western heritage museum would basically dwell on the heroic great West and tend to glorify the cavalry and the cowboys, which comes into conflict with American Indian history and culture," she said.
"But I think the Gene Autry has really turned it around and put it in perspective. They try to educate the public about the quality of Indian life in modern times. The Indian isn't frozen in time, like at other museums."
Keams, 38, said she has collected myths from her grandmother and uncles and from storytellers of other Indian nations. A movie and TV actress--"I've done my share of walking out of tepees"--Keams tailors the stories to a modern audience, giving them a three-act structure.
The band that plays the museum tomorrow is Mark Thornton and the Sidekicks Forever, with Thornton on guitar, Tom Corbitt on mandolin and David Jackson on bass. Singer Tom Willet joins the group for some songs.
"We do classic Western music, things from the Sons of the Pioneers like 'Cool Water' and 'Tumbling Tumbleweed,' " Thornton said. "We also do a Gene Autry medley and a TV Westerns medley."
Thornton, a museum employee, is pushing to expand the music program.
The Autry's most ambitious event this summer is a symposium July 28-29 on Myles Keogh, an Irish adventurer who died with Gen. George Custer at Little Bighorn. Keogh was a Union soldier in the Civil War and, before that, fought for the Vatican in a failed effort to reunify the Italian papal states. He is remembered as the owner of Comanche, the horse that legend describes as the sole creature under Custer's command to survive Little Bighorn.
"Actually, other horses survived, but they were put down," said John Langellier, museum director of research and publications. "We don't know why Comanche was saved, and the others were killed because he was in bad shape too."
Langellier said seven talks on Keogh and his era will be presented by scholars from as far away as England and the East Coast. There will be an encampment of soldiers depicting frontier military life. Tickets to specific lectures are $10. All the events, including a lunch and a dinner, cost $90.
Often museum events are tied to the current exhibit. Harnisch said the Smithsonian Institution's largest traveling show, "Crossroads of Continents," will come to the Autry late in October for a four-month stay. The exhibit covers the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the Bering Strait--an area of considerable Russian influence.
"This was the first time that American and Soviet museum curators have worked on a show," Harnisch said. "For our events we'll have Eskimo and Northwest coast artists and performers."
Previous appearances that were linked to exhibits included a whip and rope trick artist, Indian dancers, a flint-maker, a lecture by a stunt woman and a workshop where visitors fashioned and used the atlatl, a dart thrower from prehistoric times.
The museum also offers classes for children. Returning this summer is "Indians and the Mountain Men" in a two- and five-day version. Children from 8 to 12 learn skills such as pitching tepees, identifying animal tracks and starting a fire without matches. A new class is "Pioneers," which recreates the life of pioneer children.
The Autry can be rented by private groups for fund-raisers, concerts and the like. These events need not conform to the museum's mission, and some are open to the public. The museum has formed a partnership with the Pacific Composers Forum to present pianist Zita Carno and guest artists from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in concerts of new works by local composers. The first concert was held last night. The next concert is by a string quartet on Sept. 4.
Jennifer Knudson, the Autry's special events coordinator, said the cost of renting the museum is negotiated with each party.
"It's expensive," she said. "I don't like to say how much, because the price scares people away if they haven't seen the museum and what they're getting."
Built at a cost of $54 million, the Autry does offer an opulent setting. Corporations often are asked to become museum donors, with a $10,000 minimum gift, before they can rent the facilities. Nonprofit groups are not.
The museum is still growing. Last year the Autry drew 132,000 people. That includes visitors to the galleries and people attending public and private events. The number is relatively small compared to the 1.4 million who visited the County Museum of Natural History, for example.
The Autry has four unused areas, each 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, intended to become galleries as the permanent collection grows.
And the staff is working to schedule more events.
"Performance was a part of the plan from the start," said education program specialist Mary Ann Ruelas. "We're finding that there are a lot of talented people from all ethnic groups that can help tell the story of the West."