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The Old West, for real and for fun; It's L.A.'s astonishing new Gene Autry Museum.

At a museum named for Gene Autry, you might expect to see the legendary singing cowboy gallop up on Champ, offer a rendition of "Back in the Saddle Again," then unveil a series of tributes to his three-decade career in radio, film, and television.

But Los Angeles' seven-month-old Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, funded by a foundation to honor Autry's love of the West, may surprise you. Its only acknowledgments of one of Hollywood's historic stars are a bronze statue, one display case, and a few books.

Ranking with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, in the rarity of its possessions, this museum focuses on the Old West one of Autry's continuing interests and on how to distinguish the real West from its myths. Here, 16,000 artifacts explore the myth-making process and show how radio, film, television, and music enhanced Western themes.

As Autry explains in his 1978 autobiography, Back in the Saddle Again, "We took tbe work seriously, I like to think, but not ourselves, What held it together was the idea that, in even the simplest and thinnest of plots, some of it might have been tbat way. Once, there really were school marms and bad guys and sodbusters and nesters and cattle barons and good guys in white stetsons."

In the museum, you'll meet the figures Autry speaks of famous and not. Lawkeepers and outlaws: George Custer, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid. Performers: Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley. Artists: Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. You'll learn of conquistadors, Indians, trappers, gold diggers, homesteaders, rodeo and range cowboys and some of the Hollywood stars who played them: Ken Maynard, Tom Mix, James Arness, John Wayne,

How the museum's message unfolds

A seven-gallery sequence leads you from the Spirit of Discovery (objects ranging from prehistoric Anasazi pots to an 1830s buckskin trapper's coat) to the Spirit of Imagination (film clips and other Hollywood cowboy artifacts). Walt Disney Imagineering created the exhibits and their sound tracks.

The Spirit of Discovery is at entry level. From here, walk downstairs past Trails West, a courtyard with geographical vignettes from a waterfall in the Rockies to the desert's sandstone cliffs.

In the Spirit of Conquest and Opportunity, you'll see George Custer's journal, belt, and guns; gold miners' tools; and a multidimensional screen chronicling daily life on wagon trains.

The Spirit of Community displays a steam-pump fire engine purchased for $4,500 by residents of Carson City, Nevada, in 1873, and a Los Angeles Pattern Bar used in Montana to serve drinks over the last 100 years (look for bullet holes in its top left corner).

A section on law and order displays a map of the OK Corral hand-penciled by Wyatt Earp, glorified marshal of Tombstone, Arizona. Above it are Earp's and Doc Holliday's guns. This gallery features a 174-piece Colt collection-one of the most complete on public display. Beyond, a Texas longhorn beckons you into the Spirit of the Cowboy: hats, bridles, and saddles from the 1700s to mid-1900s.

Now go back upstairs to see how artists interpreted the facts with paintbrush and movie camera.

The Spirit of Romance includes two Remington bronzes and footage from a 1912 Buffalo Bill Cody show. Finally, in the Spirit of Imagination, western films play on monitors alongside displays about western stars. (The museum screens westerns on weekends; admission is $1 with museum ticket, $3 without.)

The museum's gift shop is a collector's haven, with works by artists who rarely sell in quantity You'll find Indian jewelry, cowhide chairs, glass art, books.

How to get there

From the Golden State Freeway (1-5) northbound from downtown, exit at Zoo Drive, turn right at the first stop sign, cross over the freeway, and follow signs to the zoo and museum. Hours are 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Sundays and some holiday Mondays; call (213) 667-2000. Admission is $4.75, $3.50 for students and seniors, $2 for ages 2 through 12.
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Date:Jun 1, 1989
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