Revisiting the Wild West at the Autry National Center

Jennifer Stern February 22, 2011 No Comments

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Gene Autry National Center Griffith Park

The boys and I pose by a statue of Western icon Gene Autry, "The Singing Cowboy"

A clear but chilly New Year’s Day and a fairly severe case of cabin fever left my husband and our three boys looking for something fun to do that was both inexpensive, and a within a short driving distance. An afternoon trip to the Gene Autry National Center and the Museum of the American West, located in Griffith Park, just a 15-minute drive from our house in Burbank, proved to be just the ticket.

Named for Gene Autry, the “Singing Cowboy” of radio, TV and movie fame, the Center is a veritable treasure trove of important western artifacts and memorabilia, formed in 2003 by the merger of the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the Women of the West Museum. Admission is $10 adults; $6 for kids 3-12; free for children under three; and there is also an abundance of free parking.

Museum of the American West James Gang Gun

A gun once owned by a member of the notorious James Gang

Upon arrival, the boys (being boys) wanted to head DIRECTLY to the collections of guns and firearms, naturally. So we headed downstairs to the “Spirit of the American Cowboy” hall, where we were fascinated to see such historical pieces as a rifle that had belonged to “Billy the Kid,” a Colt “Peacemaker” revolver formerly owned by the infamous Wyatt Earp, and Smith and Wesson pistols carried by the notorious James Gang brothers, Jesse and Frank. They were also very impressed by a couple of early and very rare Colt Gatling guns, manufactured in the 1890′s. In addition to the real things, there were many prop guns used on television shows and in movies like 1994′s Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner. An impressive collection of swords, knives, and bows and arrows rounded out the vast weapons collection.

One of the most interesting areas of the museum, in my opinion, had to be the section housing the artifacts from Old West saloons–the rough, rowdy, drinking/dancing/gambling institutions of the Old West. The collection featured a huge and ornately-carved cherrywood bar with vintage liquor and beer bottles, an elaborate gold turn-of-the-century cash register, a player piano, and a tall carved metal and wooden musical device that I can only describe as the great-grandfather of today’s modern jukebox.

Museum of the American West Saloon Exhibit

Will and his Dad belly up to the ornately-carved bar at the saloon exhibit

There was also an extensive collection of gambling memorabilia, including antique roulette wheels, craps tables, dice, poker chips…and even a strange-looking contraption that a card player would strap to his arm underneath a shirt sleeve to allow for cheating while playing cards. Fascinating stuff.

Will, our eight-year-old son, particularly enjoyed looking at the huge taxidermied bison and longhorn steer specimens, and was very interested in an authentic chuck wagon that was on display. He described it as an “old-fashioned station wagon that you could cook food in.” We all were very impressed by an intricately-painted and extremely well-preserved stage coach. In fact, I got in trouble with one of the museum’s docents when she caught me taking a picture of it…(oops, I hadn’t realized flash photography wasn’t permitted).

The most personal part of museums for me has always been the clothing and costume exhibits. I have always been amazed by the mere fact that such a seemingly fragile thing as fabric textiles can survive for hundreds and, in some cases, even thousands of years. I really feel a connection to the past, and I like to imagine what kind of person might have worn a particular dress, suit, or pair of shoes. I am especially fascinated by children’s clothing. In this department, the Autry did not disappoint, featuring hundreds of articles of clothing from turn-of-the-century rancher’s shirts, jeans, chaps and worn-out boots, to elaborately beaded Native American moccasins and clothing constructed of buffalo and bear hides, pelts and sinew.

Museum of the American West California Stage Coach

The family in front of an authentic California Stage Coach

Hands down, the single most popular display in the costume department had to be the one featuring a couple of Western-inspired outfits worn by the late, legendary “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson. One outfit consisted of a plaid western shirt and fringed suede pants that Jackson wore in concert as a youngster in the 1970s. The other ensemble, from the 1990s featured a red-and-black shirt, black leather pants, and an amazing pair of bright silver metal cowboy boots. And naturally, there was a single, sequined glove to complete the display.

Particularly enjoyable for my husband and me were the exhibits featuring the glitzy Western costumes, records, guitars, and assorted other memorabilia of the Hollywood “cowboys” of stage and screen–not only Gene Autry, but Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Tom Mix, and Tex Ritter. The boys were enthralled by an exhibit set up to resemble how a young boy’s bedroom might have looked in the 1950′s–the room featured a twin bed with a vintage “Davy Crockett” bedspread, a coonskin cap, toy rifles, and many Wild West-themed books, toys, board games, and action figures (and not a single video or computer game in sight!).

Museum of the American West Michael Jackson

A Western costume and sequined glove worn by Michael Jackson

Youngsters have the opportunity to “pan for gold” and dig for other clues to our nation’s past at an outdoor area within the museum featuring a small waterfall and a stream crisscrossed by bridges; however, this particular attraction was closed when we visited–probably due to it being New Year’s Day. It is definitely something that I’d advise parents of the younger set (ages 12 and under) to check out with their kids. Children under 3 are free; $5 for kids ages 3-12.

There’s also a small children’s play area featuring an interactive “horse ride” and a life-sized state of a horse that kids of all ages are welcome to climb on, plus a variety of costumes and hats for playing dress-up. I think my twelve-year-old enjoyed it every bit as much as my eight-year-old did (and the 15-year-old probably did as well; however, he was much too cool to say so).

The Autry National Center is located at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA: (323) 667-2000.

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Jennifer Stern is a mom of three teen boys, who provide her with constant inspiration to write. She is also a fitness professional/junkie who teaches everything from Spinning to Zumba. A New Jersey native, this is her second time living in Southern California. She loves the L.A. lifestyle, but does miss eating decent pizza and bagels--so she consoles herself with excellent Mexican food. She and her family live in Burbank.

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