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The Sooner seen

Although some 1,333 miles lay between Oklahoma City and Hollywood, you wouldn’t know it from the looks of a new exhibit celebrating the Sooner State’s contributions to cinema.

Phil Bacharach May 16th, 2012

Oklahoma @ the Movies
Oklahoma History Center
800 Nazih Zuhdi

Oklahoma’s long and abiding love affair with the movies dates back nearly to the dawn of cinema itself. Will Rogers was the biggest movie star of his day, and fellow Oklahomans like Tom Mix and Gene Autry weren’t far behind. Cimarron, which depicted the 1889 Land Run, was one of the earliest Oscar winners for Best Picture. From The Outsiders to Twister, the Sooner State has served as a backdrop for a host of motion pictures big and small. 

But did you know that Donald Duck was from Watonga?

The Disney icon’s Sooner roots are among the scores of little-known stories showcased in Oklahoma @ the Movies, an 8,000-square-foot, permanent exhibition that opened yesterday at the Oklahoma History Center.

“There was a ton of surprises,” said Larry O’Dell, who co-curated the exhibition with David Davis.

Oklahoma @ the Movies encompasses four segments: on-screen stars, behind-the-scenes filmmakers, the state’s image on the silver screen and the moviegoing experience. For that final part, the exhibition boasts an homage to the state’s historic movie houses, as well as a drive-in theater — replete with a ’65 Mustang — that will show clips from relevant B movies.

Several hundred artifacts range from on-loan Oscars to costumes worn by the likes of Brad Pitt, Joan Crawford, Ed Harris, Jennifer Jones and others. The sprawling display weaves the tale of Oklahoma filmmakers and filmmaking, both in and outside the state.

One of those stories involves Clarence Nash, a Watonga farm boy who migrated to California in the late 1920s and wound up selling ice cream from a pushcart. But Nash had a unique talent: He could mimic bird calls, a gift that led to a fateful meeting with Walt Disney.

“He had this voice that he had created,” said Jeff Moore, an Oklahoma History Center curator who did much of the research and gathering for the exhibit. “The Disney company was looking for a foil to go along with Mickey Mouse. Clarence Nash does his voice, and they decided to hire him right then to be the voice of Donald Duck.”

Nash remained the voice of Donald for more than 50 years, and Oklahoma @ the Movies features his Donald Duck ventriloquist dummy.

Other Oklahoma connections exist to the Mouse. The exhibition presents artwork from Mary Blair, a McAlester native who became one of Disney’s most renowned artists, contributing to animated classics such as Peter Pan, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.

Much like films themselves, Oklahoma @ the Movies is very much a collaborative effort. In addition to three guest curators — Tulsa author and screenwriter John Wooley; Elizabeth Anthony, a film historian who runs the website Reel Classics; and Brian Hearn, film curator of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art — the exhibit boasts a wealth of contributions.

Norman’s National Weather Center, for example, aided in a special presentation involving the 1996 blockbuster Twister, while Oklahoma City Community College film students built a soundstage that lets visitors swagger through the set of Oklahoma! And several special effects and makeup artists have provided their wares for an interactive area that promises to be as fun as it is messy.

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A Century of Magic: The Animation of the Walt Disney Studios visual arts feature

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