Cowboys and Indians in fact and fable

Who would have guessed that "America's Favorite Singing Cowboy," whose career spanned 70 years in the entertainment industry, would leave such a legacy? Gene Autry holds the distinction of being the only performer to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for motion pictures, radio, television, recordings and live performances. But Autry wanted to leave something enduring behind that wasn't a shrine to himself.

For years he had dreamed of creating a museum celebrating the American West, but the result went far beyond his original concept. The museum he founded helps visitors understand the real history of the region, but it also takes a fascinating look at how the West was portrayed in popular culture - from art to films to advertising.

At the Autry National Center's entrance courtyard stands a handsome life-size bronze statue of Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who traveled with explorers Lewis and Clark. At the rear is a bigger-than-life bronze statue of Autry and his beloved horse, Champion.

Autry's 148,000-square-foot California mission-style museum opened in 1988 on 10 acres in Griffith Park, adjacent to the Los Angeles Zoo. Last November it was renamed the Autry National Center, after the Museum of the American West merged with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. Currently there are two locations, but plans call for the Southwest Museum to eventually move its collection to a new, expanded location in Griffith Park.

Within the original Autry museum, the wide-ranging exhibitions, collections, programs, and educational offerings connect the past to the present, showcasing the many cultures and ethnic groups that have played roles, large and small, in settling and shaping the American West.

The museum's exhibition space is divided into 10 areas on two levels. In the George Montgomery Gallery, the ancient craft of rawhide braiding created by legendary artisan Luis Ortega will be displayed from April 3 through July 4. On loan from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum of Oklahoma City, this exhibit represents the first major retrospective of the artistry of this fifth- generation Californian.

The museum's most popular area, the Spirit of Imagination Gallery, includes exhibits that feature the men and women of Wild West shows, as well as Western movies, radio programs, and TV series. Among them, the influence of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show looms large.

The evolution of the Western film, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille's "The Squaw Man," is traced through costumes, props, scripts and posters. This gallery features one of the museum's most prized possessions, a saddle that once sat in Gene Autry's living room. Many consider it the most elaborately decorated saddle ever made.

Artists' interpretations of the West, both real and mythical, come to life in the Spirit of Romance Gallery. "The Mountain of the Holy Cross," by Thomas Moran, the most important painting in this exhibit space, originally hung in Autry's home. This gallery also features paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts by famed artists such as Bierstadt, Catlin, Remington. and Russell.

The Spirit of Opportunity Gallery and Community Gallery focuses on the opportunities that drew people of many ethnic backgroundsto the West in the 1800s.

The law and order section depicts good and bad guys of the West, including a three-dimensional scene portraying what actually happened at the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Families especially enjoy the McCormick Tribune Foundation Family Discovery Gallery, where children can dress up in costumes, play family games, and trace their family trees.

Six miles from the Autry Center, the Southwest Museum of the American Indian looms high on Mt. Washington. Founded in 1907, L.A.'s oldest museum currently makes its home in a 1914 building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Expansion plans at the Griffith Park location will result in more than quintupling the current gallery space for the Southwest Museum's holdings.

Its 250,000 items include more than 13,000 baskets, 11,000 ceramics, 700 kachinas, 800 pieces of Southwest Indian jewelry, 25,000 ethnographic objects, and a collection of 6,000 Spanish colonial artifacts. The museum's collections document the beginnings of American anthropology.

"People of the Southwest: Changing Traditions and People of California" traces the history of Indian cultures through the diverse objects they have created. The exhibits describe the adaptation and continuation of ancient traditions. The California Gallery highlights old and new woven baskets and native jewelry and explains the ways in which today's American Indians work to keep their culture and languages alive.

The Braun Research Library enhances the museum's collection with thousands of books, magazines, photographs, and 3,000 recordings about the native and Hispanic peoples of the Americas and the history and exploration of the American West.

Los Angeles counts the Autry National Center as one of its prized attractions. And it keeps getting better.

Upon the opening of the museum in 1988, Autry commented, "It has always been my intention to build a museum which would exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West, and show how it has influenced America and the world."

Mission accomplished.

Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles; (323) 667-2000; www.autry-museum.org and www.autrynationalcenter.org. Southwest Museum of the American Indian, 234 Museum Drive, Los Angeles; (323) 221-2164; www.southwestmuseum.org.

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