Auto Biography : New Museum to Depict L.A.'s Car Culture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Welcome to Los Angeles' cultural world: Picassos, tar pits--and, now, Chevys.

The Petersen Automotive Museum--named after car magazine publisher Robert E. Petersen, who donated $15 million of its $40-million price tag--opens Saturday in the long-vacant Ohrbach's department store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

The latest addition to the County Museum of Natural History is designed to depict how the automobile shaped life in America's No. 1 car-loving city.

Just about everything with an internal combustion engine has a place here, from the cars of Hollywood stars to a three-wheel vehicle built by a transsexual con artist.

It may be the only museum in America where visitors wander over a fake roadway--complete with a manhole cover--that winds past exhibits ranging from a strip mall to a diner shaped like a bulldog.

It is supposed to be every bit as serious at its high-brow neighbors, the County Museum of Art and the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.

"We're not just another shiny indoor parking lot," said James D. Olson, chief of exhibits. "We're trying to tell a story--about the history of this city."

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The new museum has taken a few knocks, however, because it opens at a time of deep financial difficulties for the natural history museum's main facility in Exposition Park and the Page Museum.

"It's a strange juxtaposition from a science-oriented museum to a museum that now seems controlled by the automotive interests," said James Zordich, retired curator of the Natural History Museum's transportation collection.

"The museum is sacrificing the vertebrate paleontology collection in favor of cars. It's ironic because at the present time, the automobile is a dirty word from an environmental point of view. Yet, dinosaurs are extremely popular--look at Barney."

James L. Goedert, an amateur paleontologist who has worked with the museum, asked in a letter to Craig Black, director of the natural history museum, "just why is a car museum part of a Natural History Museum?"

"Perhaps the confusion you have," Black responded, "is that the museum's name only denotes 'natural' history, but it actually is a 'history' and 'natural history' museum."

Officials insist that no programs have been sacrificed to pay for the car museum, and that cars are every bit as important as dinosaurs to understanding our culture--more so in this town.

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Officials believe that the car exhibit not only fits the institution's educational mission but could help save the rest of museums if it proves popular with the public.

"The sciences don't produce any money," said Mark A. Rodriguez, deputy director of the Natural History Museum.

Cars have been part of the natural history museum's collection since the 1920s. But most of them have been locked away in warehouses because of lack of exhibit space.

Defending their decision to build the museum, officials say that planning began before budget cuts were proposed.

And, they noted, the car museum is largely being built with private funds--mostly from Petersen, son of a car mechanic and publisher of Motor Trend and Hot Rod magazines.

"None of this was done with county money," Black said. "None of it was done with money that could have gone anywhere else."

The County Board of Supervisors in 1992 approved $28.5 million in tax-exempt financing for the car project. But the museum's private fund-raising arm is required to pay off most of the bonds. The county agreed to chip in $400,000 a year--the amount of money the county saves by no longer having to rent storage space for its car collection. The private Natural History Museum Foundation is responsible for all operating costs.

Annual revenues are projected at $3.1 million--more than double the money brought in by the museum's main facility in Exposition Park and the Page Museum combined. Attendance is projected at 700,000 to 800,000 visitors in its first year.

Skeptics worry that if the car museum stalls, it will drain money from other museum programs. They note that some car museums elsewhere in the country have closed their doors or barely manage to break even because of poor attendance.

But officials say the car museum--featuring Disneyland-like special effects--will appeal not just to gear heads but to everyone, even the fine arts crowd.

"Even if you're not interested in cars, you're going to be interested in this for the history lesson," Olson said.

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Even the new museum's critics concede that the car helped shape Los Angeles, fueling the city's growth while contributing to the demise of a public transportation system once known as the "world's largest interurban electrical railway." It also caused two of the region's biggest problems: smog and traffic.

The world's first drive-in grocery store and drive-in church originated here. So did radio traffic reports.

In turn, Southern California's lifestyle influenced the development and refinement of the car, giving birth to the convertible and smog equipment. Here, the car was not just a way to get to work--it was a way of life.

About 200 cars of historical importance will be displayed--including a 1984 Buick used to pace the torch relay leading up to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, the three-wheeled Dale built in the 1970s by transsexual con artist Elizabeth Carmichael, a 1932 Duesenberg, a Model-T, a Helms Bakery truck and a 1922 Leach.

(Surely you remember the Leach? "They were built in Los Angeles," said Leslie Kendall, manager of the automobile collection for the Petersen. Fewer than 500 Leaches were built. Probably because the car sold in 1922 for $6,200--equal to the cost of a dozen Model-Ts.)

Of course, no Los Angeles museum would be complete without a Hollywood connection. Cars of the stars will be displayed, as will cars that starred in movies and TV. Jean Harlow's Packard is on exhibit, as is Clark Gable's Mercedes.

So is Jack Benny's Chrysler Imperial--the one he actually drove. (The Maxwell, the cheap heap that he made famous in his routines, is at the Imperial Palace Auto Collection in Las Vegas, but will be available on loan to the Petersen, as will Marilyn Monroe's pink convertible and Liberace's Rolls-Royce, covered with--what else?--candelabra.)

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The Hollywood exhibit already has earned the museum a spot on the itinerary of at least one sightseeing tour company. "These guys got real excited when we told them we're going to have Hollywood celebrity mannequins along with their cars," Olson said.

Curators take particular pride in the historically precise settings created for the collection.

Cars are exhibited among streetscapes such as a strip mall, a drive-in restaurant and a replica of the Dog Cafe that once stood on Washington Boulevard in Culver City. The exhibits illustrate how the car influenced life in Southern California--the diner shaped like a dog shows how buildings were designed to grab the attention of passing motorists.

A wrecked Toyota also is on display to demonstrate how the death toll from automobile accidents brought about new safety features--air bags and seat belts.

Car art also is featured. Opening exhibits include a photo-collage of auto junkyards and a display of coffins carved with the likenesses of cars.

The new museum will appeal to all the senses. An apple pie smell will waft out of a replica of a California bungalow, and sparks will crackle noisily from the wires above an old-time trolley car.

Officials will even let patrons slide behind the wheel of a few vehicles. "You can't put 200 cars in a place and not have any of them be touchable," curator Matt Roth said.

Richard Volpert, an attorney who heads the Natural History Museum Foundation, called the car museum "an intelligent gamble."

"For our museum to survive, we have to have a presence beyond Exposition Park," he said. "Like it or not, Exposition Park is a tough place to draw people," in part because of safety concerns.

James Powell, a geologist who has been named to succeed the retiring Black, believes that the car museum will open up new sources of revenue.

"There are wealthy people who are interested in automobiles who don't happen to be interested in dinosaurs or birds or fossils or minerals," he said.

Among those who welcome the new museum is George C. Page, founder of the fossil museum that bears his name--the same facility that has been cut to the bone by county budget cuts.

"Anything that brings more people to the area helps my museum," said the 93-year-old Page.

The museum has come up with an unusual fund-raising gambit: offering $20,000 donors the chance to become a gas station attendant or car salesman in the museum by having their face sculpted onto a mannequin. So far, no one has taken them up on the offer.

Admission to the Petersen is $7 for adults and $3 for children between 5 and 12 years old, free for those under 5. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays.

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