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Four people you know, the histories you don’t

Times Staff Writer

A group of employees at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance packs into a conference room, watching Maya Angelou and Billy Crystal on “Oprah.”

“Why do we need to know where we came from?” the talk-show host asks. Crystal gamely plunges in. “It places me ... it gives me a center,” the comic and sometime Oscar host suggests, ceding the floor to Angelou.

“In this fast-food world, everyone feels like he or she is a blade of grass,” the author intones in her mellifluous contralto. “In fact, we’re trees. We have roots. We can’t be whisked away with a lawn mower. With a past, we can stand more erect.”

“Yeah, that too,” Crystal deadpans, to the delight of the museum contingent.

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The focus of the show wasn’t Crystal’s comedy, however, but a more serious pursuit. Over the last four years, he and his wife, Janice, have served as executive producers of the museum’s “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” -- a multimedia exhibit featuring not only Angelou and Crystal but also New York Yankee manager Joe Torre and Grammy winner Carlos Santana. The 10,000-square-foot installation, the venue’s largest ever, opens to the public Tuesday.

Visitors start out in a re-creation of Ellis Island, wending their way through photo-lined hallways where early 20th century immigration artifacts are displayed. Then come the individual stories. In four themed rooms, each of the principals has depicted a place central to his or her history. On a video presentation, set into the space, they talk about their families and those who influenced them most.

The exhibit also features five “cameo” participants -- ice-skating champ Michelle Kwan, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Latina talk-show host Cristina Saralegui, Native American writer Sherman Alexie (“Smoke Signals”) and San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young. All appear on monitors in a room filled with family memorabilia, sharing their own tales. At the end of the 60- to 90-minute tour, people can head for a computer room to find out how to research their roots.

The seed for the project was planted when Janice Crystal, whose parents were celebrating their 50th anniversary, approached local genealogist Rafael Guber. She asked him to research her family tree and, when her husband turned 50, to investigate his as well. Guber and Museum of Tolerance founder Rabbi Marvin Hier had been talking about collaborating on an exhibit but were unsure how to implement the vision. Enter Crystal. With his contacts and filmmaking experience, he was, says Hier, the “missing puzzle piece.”

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Rather than lending his name to the exhibit, the comedian tackled it head-on: fund-raising ($6 million of the cost of construction and installation came from the state of California and $700,000 from private sources); directing the videos; and enlisting the help of Universal Studios and the Walt Disney Co.'s Imagineering division, which came up with a blueprint pro bono. Crystal also hosts the video tour, portraying an immigrant arriving at Ellis Island. He speaks of the need to make life better for his kids (“who never call”), bemoans the lack of a cell phone to warn cousin Ishie of the Cossacks and delivers a joke about the ever-changing Russian-Polish border that “used to kill them in steerage.”

“Billy lined up a high-profile group willing to share their stories,” Hier said. “Torre spoke of his father’s abuse, Angelou of her abandonment. People of all colors and faiths, celebrities included, must deal with life’s trials and tribulations. In this age of terrorism, especially, it’s important to stress our commonality.”

Crystal was 15 when his father died. Jack Crystal lived only to 54, the same age his son is now. Poring over memorabilia Guber dredged up, the comedian tapped into his dad’s love of sports. Every week, a new installment of family history would arrive (“The Jew of the Month Club,” he quips).

The result: “Watercolor Memories,” a space based on a painting by Crystal’s 87-year-old Uncle Bern. Highly stylized, it re-creates the family’s Brooklyn apartment -- including a floor that sloped so severely the couch had to be tied to the wall.

Torre, an old friend of Yankee fan Crystal, was quick to come aboard. Growing up, he says, he had little awareness of his past. The United States -- and his father -- made his mother ashamed of her foreign roots. Guber traced her back to Patina, Italy -- a town Torre’s wife and sisters have since visited (he was in pinstripes at the time). His video shows the Torre siblings at the kitchen table, reflecting on their challenges and lauding their mother’s strength in the face of domestic violence.

“It’s important to know where the first nails were driven -- not just the finished product,” he said. “I was nervous and frightened as a child because of my father’s abusiveness. My sisters were hesitant about raising the issue -- we tried to appear so normal. But everybody has something they feel only they have to deal with. Only by processing it can you move on.”

Angelou chose to portray her grandmother’s general store in Arkansas, where she spent her happiest hours. At age 3, she and her older brother were sent there by their mother, who remained in Los Angeles. Though all of her work is about honoring the past, Angelou says, she was reluctant to uncover too much. When Guber offered to tell her the real name of her grandmother, born into slavery, she had to leave the room.

“My great-grandmother locked that door,” Angelou said. “She changed her name after slavery so no one would know where she was from or which ‘master’ owned her. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound, so I plowed ahead. It’s still raw, getting in touch with all those cruelties. But the knowledge will be liberating, over time. We should all remember that not even Donna Reed had a ‘Donna Reed’ life.”

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Santana was the last to sign on. But his participation, he’s convinced, was “destined.” Two weeks before Crystal’s call, he dreamed that, as he was leaving Tower Records, he saw the comedian (whom he’d never met) waiting for him with a microphone. “What do you think of this project?” Crystal asked. “I’m working on it with Disney.”

This experience opened up nearly 300 years of family history, reinforcing the musician’s belief in global and familial “connections.” His video is set in his studio -- in the present, to hit home the message.

“I -- like the Beatles ... ‘All You Need is Love’ -- touch the whole tapestry of the rainbow in my music,” he says. “In the exhibit, you also have Billy -- healing through humor, Maya through her poetry. And Joe bringing a bunch of diverse people to a championship, victory over their own beasts. We can all choose to be the best of our families, opting for beauty, elegance, grace and dignity rather than the shame and judgment of the past.”

The initial commitment is for a three-year run. If all goes well, the exhibit could be renewed with some different personalities and the possibility of taking it on the road.

“The museum gave us creative license, permitting us to enter a new world,” Janice Crystal said. “All those who participated did so because this is a history lesson that will hopefully be there forever.”

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‘Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves’

Where: The Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

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When: Starts Tuesday

Price: $6 to $8; under 12, $5 for entrance to this exhibit only

Contact: (310) 553-8403


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