Hidden Among the Dinosaurs
In Natural History Museum warehouses are thousands of artifacts, nostalgic notes from Hollywood's earliest days.

By VALERIE J. NELSON, L.A. Times Staff Writer, Nov. 16, 1999

Golden locks of Mary Pickford's perfectly preserved hair. Lon Chaney's makeup kit. A script written in D.W. Griffith's hand. A sketch for "Citizen Kane's" set design. Fred Astaire's tap shoes. These are but a few of thousands of Hollywood treasures that lie hidden in the vaults of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Experts say the Exposition Park museum, best known for its displays of dinosaurs and bugs, has the world's most extensive collection of pre-1940s movie memorabilia. Yet most of it has never been seen by the public.

"From a historical standpoint, the collection far outweighs any others around the world," said Eddie Newquist, a former Universal Studios executive who traveled widely while establishing the studio's archives. "Nothing comes close to this."

The collection began in 1930 when a Natural History Museum curator who recognized Hollywood's potential cultural significance began soliciting donation from the fledgling industry. In most cases, objects came from the studios or were given by stars or others who worked on a film.

Curators say the collection is weighted toward early Hollywood--particularly the silent era--because the museum began collecting when nobody else thought to ask. The museum has no estimate of its overall worth.

"Somebody decided, hey, this motion picture industry is becoming very big out here. Perhaps we should start collecting in that area," said Beth Werling, a collections manager and the only museum employee devoted full time to the collection. "So when they began collecting, it was to document how films were made unlike, say, an art museum, which will collect films and perhaps costumes to look at films from an artistic standpoint."

The collection also skews toward early film because the heaviest period of acquisition was in the '30s, when Earl Theisen, the first curator, went knocking on Hollywood's door. After he left in 1939, the museum still acquired objects but didn't actively solicit donations.

The public seldom gets a chance to view much of the irreplaceable memorabilia. Items are rotated through four small cases dedicated to motion pictures in the corner of the California History Hall.

It wasn't always that way; from the 1930s through the early '60s, the museum had a separate motion picture hall, closed only during World War II, when the exhibit was dismantled because of fears of bombing.

Werling calls the collection a "hidden treasure" that was the victim of budget cuts, indifferent curators and a museum's changing priorities. Most of the artifacts sat untended in storage for decades.

Museum Takes Aggressive Role

Since taking over the collection five years ago, the museum's history department has been more aggressive about lending pieces to other museums and about cataloging exhibits, Werling said. Still, she estimates that only 5% of the item have been cataloged.

"There really isn't another institution like [it]," said Dan Woodruff, artifacts curator for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "To my knowledge, it was the first one in Los Angeles. It's not well known but, boy, it's got the stuff."

Werling once got a call from a curator at another museum curious to know why a natural history museum had Astaire's tap shoes from "Top Hat." "They couldn't quite piece it together," she said. "They asked, 'Are you doing something on the science of sound? Is that why you have them?' "

Many of the donations were made simply because Theisen thought to ask. For instance, he wrote to W.K.L. Dixon, who developed the motion picture camera while working for Thomas Edison. "Dixon, who was living in England, wrote wonderful handwritten letters back to the curator here, with the drawings of all the steps he went through to develop the motion picture camera," she said.

Film buffs also don't expect to find relics of Hollywood at a museum with "natural history" in its title. "But it's natural and cultural history," said Gina Ward, a museum spokeswoman. "This is the heart of where the motion picture industry began, and we are the keeper of some incredible items."

A haunting bust--the wax cast of Chaney's head that he used to perfect his makeup for "The Phantom of the Opera"--seems to stand guard over the pieces of Hollywood history pulled together for a recent private viewing of the collection in a research room at the museum. Thousands of items are stored at the museum and four warehouses around Los Angeles.

Seeing the artifacts from early Hollywood is, as Newquist said, "breathtaking." Among the remarkable items in the collection:

A D.W. Griffith script from 1910 with notations that reflect his concern over what he was paying his actors--$5 to $8 a day. The script is from the collection of silent film actress Florence Lawrence, the first actress to be billed in a film.

Locks of Mary Pickford's hair, carefully tucked away in a gray archival storage box, gleaming as if they were washed yesterday instead of 70 years ago, when she made the donation. It was the most unusual of her bequests to the museum, which included costumes from many of her films.

The animation stand on which Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. (The stand is on permanent display.) Disney also donated early animation cels, as did Woody Woodpecker's creator, Walter Lantz.

An insurance agent's architectural-style map showing how Mack Sennett's studio ("Keystone Kops") was set up in 1917.

A gorilla suit belonging to George Barrows, an actor who built a career playing a gorilla. (When someone asked where the suit's hair came from, museum mammalogists quickly figured out it was from a yak.)

The Chaney collection is the most famous among the museum's motion picture memorabilia, Werling said. The makeup kit he used once is of special interest to people in the special effects field because he was able to do so much with so little, and Werling said she has received calls about it from around the world.

"If you look at the kit, there's nothing spectacular in here," she said, motioning to a few grease pencils and other nondescript makeup tools.

How Hollywood legends presented their gifts also is revealing. "Charlie Chaplin was wonderful, because he told us where everything was filmed, which films they were from and it all checked out," Werling said.

"His partner at United Artists, Douglas Fairbanks, on the other hand, gave us stuff and didn't tell us what film it was from, or we didn't ask, so I'm having a very difficult time tracing the props he gave us."

Background From Unlikely Sources

Sometimes help comes from an unlikely source. Relatives of Marcel and Victor Delgado, whose model miniatures from the original "King Kong" and 1925's "The Lost World" are in the collection, recently found out that the museum had some of the brothers' work and arranged a private viewing.

"They were able to give us some background on which brother did what," Werling said. "But they were most thrilled to look at the items here."

The museum wants to expand the small display space devoted to the collection, but the building, a "mishmash" of add-ons, defies a simple plan, Ward said. Another goal is making the studios more aware of the museum's role as a caretaker of Hollywood history. Universal has the strongest studio presence because the family of Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal, made so many donations, "but the studio had no idea the stuff was here," Werling said.

"At Universal, we struggle to find anything from early Hollywood, because most of the studios got rid of old props or reused them," said Newquist, now president of production for BBH Exhibits, which puts together touring museum exhibits. "I had no idea there was such a treasure chest in my own backyard."

Although the focus and strength of the collection are concentrated before the '40s, more modern times also are represented. One recent gift: Christina Ricci's gothic gown from 1993's "Addams Family Values."

"It's much more difficult to build a collection in today's market," Werling said. "Why give it to a museum when you can sell it on EBay?"

copyright 1999

[Home] [News & Notes] [The Features Page] [The Store] [At the Movies]
[The Calendar] [Silent Era Facts] [Silent Star of the Month]