Former President Teddy Roosevelt is widely known to have coined the famous axiom “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Take a visit to the Martial Arts History Museum in Burbank, however, and you’ll learn he didn’t need one. Roosevelt was one of America’s first non-Asian Judo students.
“He was quite skilled,” says Michael Matsuda, the museum’s owner and founder. “He wouldn’t have had much trouble throwing you around.”
It’s little historical tidbits like this that make Matsuda’s museum — billed as the first and only one of its kind in the world — a fascinating visit.
The museum’s scope covers the origins of the martial arts nearly 4,000 years ago in China, its subsequent spread through Asia and the Pacific Islands, to its popular dissemination around the world through Hollywood efforts like the original “Green Hornet” series and movies like “Enter the Dragon.”
The idea is to provide the historical context for martial arts enthusiasts — and to celebrate the culture of the Asian nations who brought these arts to the world. Chinese opera and Japanese Kabuki theater are given equal billing alongside the history of Asian weaponized farm tools.
“Both the opera and Kabuki incorporate various elements of the martial arts in their movements,” explains Matsuda, 52.
It’s no stretch then, given the historical fusion of martial arts and the world of theater, that Hollywood is so well represented in the museum. Artifacts from the set of “Xena: Princess Warrior” and the “Mortal Combat” films are prominently displayed alongside traditional.
But while Hollywood gets its dues, don’t expect an homage to popular figures like Chuck Norris or Jackie Chan.
“It was important to me to keep the culture and history alive,” says Matsuda, “not just to make it a who’s-who list of popular martial arts figures.”
In keeping with that philosophy, both the Thai and Filipino consulates have lent cultural items to the museum in an effort to raise awareness of their respective of martial arts — which, in the American consciousness, often get overshadowed by the legacy of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese samurai or Bruce Lee’s Chinese Kung Fu.
Highlights of the collection include replica Japanese 12th century Samurai armor, traditional Hawaiian shark-tooth-lined “knuckledusters” and even Daniel Larusso’s headband from “The Karate Kid, Part II.”
And there are swords. Plenty of swords.
“Unless you own one,” says Matsuda, “this is just about the only place you can come and handle a samurai sword.”
Matsuda himself is an accomplished practitioner of the art of Monkey Kung Fu, a Chinese martial art that uses monkey-like movements as part of its technique. He bolsters the museum’s collection with a spate of martial arts and Asian cultural programming.
The museum plans to start the new year with two high-profile events. Matsuda says he’s organizing an “animation night” in early February — highlighting prominent local Asian Americans working in the field. Speakers will range from Paul Wee, head animator of “The Simpsons,” to Frank Wu, from the “Family Guy” animation team.
Later in the month, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion and Hollywood star of “The A-Team,” is expected to make an appearance.
Don’t expect any Monkey Kung Fu demonstrations in the near future, however.
“It’s not about me,” Matsuda says with a laugh.
MATTHEW FLEISCHER is a writer based in Glendale whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine and LA Weekly.
What: Martial Arts Museum
Where: 2319 West Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
Hours and tickets: 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Thurs.-Sun.; $6 adults; $3 ages 6-12; free under 6.
Phone and info: (818) 478-1722 and martialartsmuseum.com.