Exploring the Wild West with ‘one who knows’
becomes one for the memory books
THE AUTRY NATIONAL CENTER, one of the more significant cultural attractions – as opposed to distractions – for visitors to and residents of Los Angeles alike, is a rich tapestry of history, art, folklore and America’s love affair with the Wild West.
The Autry National Center is adjacent to the world famous Los Angeles Zoo in one of the city’s major urban open spaces, Griffith Park.
The epitome of the singing cowboy, Gene Autry (who was born Orvon Grover Autry in Texas) is immortalized within the walls of the museum that bears his name.
Most who visit this remarkable monument to Hollywood, Americana and the Frontier Spirit are met at the ticket counter by Joshua Mattick, lead ambassador of visitor services and membership.
He was standing at the ready when I approached him a little after one o’clock on Tuesday afternoon.
“The best thing about this job is meeting all the [new] people,” he said. “The stories that I’ve heard! I just love my job.”
Joshua Mattick, lead ambassador of visitor services and membership, greets new arrivals at the reception desk of the Museum of Western Heritage.
MATTICK said he was introduced to the then Autry Museum of Western Heritage by his grandfather at the tender age of eight. He has now worked at the museum complex for seven years.
“I started in the museum store as a clerk, and then I ‘graduated,’ ” he explained. “One has to have an adorable face [to do this job],” he grinned, “and it helps if you have dimples.”
Judge for yourself from his picture whether Mattick is qualified.
The Museum of the American West, formerly known as the Museum of Western Heritage, was co-founded by Gene and Jackie Autry and Monte and Joanne Hale, according to the museum’s web site.
With the opening of the Museum in 1988, Gene Autry realized his dream “to build a museum which would exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West and show how it influenced America and the world.”
A few moments after meeting Mattick, I was joined, as planned, by my friend, colleague and special guide for this unforgettable ride through space and time: Professor Mikki Bolliger, wearing her docent lanyard, and we were off.
Bolliger, who retired from the job I was hired for in 2007, has worked as a volunteer docent a mere four years. But in that time, she has absorbed every detail – history, folklore, fact and fiction – about almost every artifact on display. Even about a few that are not on display.
“I love doing this,” she said, near the end of what can only be described as an expertly guided tour through history – and a class. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined spending almost two hours with her, as her student, exploring a fascinating – and not widely known, behind the glitz and glamor – period of U.S. History.
What a teacher she is!
Now I know why her students – past and present (she has been standing in for me since March 28) – love her.
IT WAS more MOCA than Disneyland. The artifacts – including perhaps hundreds of weapons of all makes, shapes and sizes in the Samuel Colt gallery, even the Presidential Pistols – are obviously treasured, as they should be.
Many have been lovingly restored, some painstakingly by hand. Others were donated by rich and famous benefactors (Gene and his wife among the most generous), while replicas can often been seen fetching in the tens of thousands of dollars on Antiques Roadshow.
Our first stop was an exhibit revealing hidden gems about the California Gold rush from 1848 to 1855.
Here was a three-foot tall gleaming brass scale, with a gold nugget the size of the Hope Diamond on one side, and a one-ounce-or-larger weight on the other.
“When they opened this up to restore it,” Bolliger explained, “they found a hidden weight inside.”
Talk about tipping the scales!
Nearby was a typical hoop skirt worn by the women of the day, even as they rode on their covered wagons on the cross-country trek. Pointing to the internal paraphernalia that supports the skirts, Bolliger said: “That thing weighs 25 pounds.”
USING her special docent’s key, she stooped to unlock a trunkful of goodies that are used as props when young children are present.
A group of young students and their teacher gathers round as Mikki explains some of the docent props stored in the locked cabinet.
As she started unloading the drawers, one item at a time, she explained the relevance of each one to me. At first, it was just the two of us, laughing and clowning around, oblivious to the arriving audience of a teacher and six of her pupils that gathered around us.
Without skipping a beat, Mikki slipped into her classroom mode, and I soon followed behind her.
The pre-teens, all girls, wanted to touch the Buffalo hide laying on the box. Bolliger gladly held it up, and all six got to feel the rough and smooth hairs.
Suddenly she pulled out a colorful jacket, and asked: “Which one of you wants to try this on?”
Half a dozen hands shot into the air. “OK, you!” She picked the one on the right end of the semi-circle.
It fit perfectly.
According o the latourist.com web site, The Autry National Center was established in 2003 following the merger of the Southwest Museum, the Women of the West Museum, and the Museum of the American West (formerly the Autry Museum of Western Heritage).
“Through innovative exhibitions, a broad range of programs and extensive collection of art and artifacts, the Autry National Center explores the distinct stories and interactions of cultures and peoples, and their impact on the complex, evolving history of the American West.”
Innovative, fascinating and memorable it certainly is. Explored with a great friend, great teacher and all around great human being like Mikki was a truly unforgettable experience.
Post script: The museum at the Autry National Center is all about the kids. One of their favorites is the Hollywood special effects simulation: riding the rocking horse in front of the green screen, the background is inserted by computer and the composite image displayed on an overhead monitor. Watch a video of the ride here.