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Pop goes the culture

The Oklahoma History Center plans to celebrate a past you don’t get in history books.

Joshua Kline June 13th, 2012

The common perception of popular culture as it relates to Oklahoma is often limited to cowboys and Indians, red state politicians and the occasional writer, artist or performer who managed to escape the grip of the Bible Belt and now rarely, if ever, returns home.

Jeff Moore with Moon Martin jacket
Credit: Mark Hancock

But the basement of the Oklahoma History Center tells a different tale. The massive storage facility is a treasure trove of artifacts that collectively forms an alternative history of the Sooner State as pop-culture mecca — a breeding ground for artists and creators whose work has helped shape the culture of not just Oklahoma, but America.

“We’re looking at Oklahoma as the crossroads of creativity,” said Jeff Moore, project director of the Oklahoma Pop Museum (OK Pop), a long-gestating project of the Oklahoma Historical Society tentatively scheduled to open in downtown Tulsa’s Brady District in 2016.

Many of the cultural artifacts currently in OHC storage will end up on display at the new museum.

Pop props

In the OHC’s film and video collections room, digitization preserves film — “anything but 35 millimeter,” Moore said, noting collections have come in from former Miss America contestant Anita Bryant, Haskell Boggs and Arthur Ramsey. While the latter two may not be household names, Moore is excited about them.

Boggs was a cinematographer and Oklahoma native who created his own camera while still attending high school in Oklahoma City in the late 1920s. At age 17, he was hired by Arthur Ramsey, a wealthy businessman and producer, to shoot movies and commercials in-state.

This collaboration yielded incredible footage of 1930s-era Oklahoma, much of which the History Center now possesses. Boggs eventually went to Hollywood and worked as cinematographer on one of the first television series broadcast in color: Bonanza.

Farther into the annals of the basement, the movie room boasts grotesque props and sculptures on its tables and shelves: severed body parts, monstrous heads, decaying cadavers. Much of this comes from Atoka native Matthew Mungle, an Oscar-winning special effects and makeup artist whose filmography includes Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Schindler’s List, Inception and Albert Nobbs.

Elsewhere in the room stand a musket from The Last of the Mohicans, produced by OKC native Hunt Lowry; a sound editing machine courtesy of Broken Arrow expat Michael T. Ryan (music editor of Source Code, Spider- Man 3, The Passion of the Christ and others); Tulsa-born Blake Edwards’ personal poster for his 1963 film, The Pink Panther; the set chair of Osage County vet Ben Johnson, Oscar winner for The Last Picture Show; and the Best Actress Academy Award for Tulsan Jennifer Jones’ performance in 1943’s The Song of Bernadette.

On the music side of things are the drum set of Eric Clapton percussionist and Tulsa native Jamie Oldaker, and the infamous Soviet Union hammer-and-sickle shirt worn by Flaming Lips bassist Michael Ivins during a visit to the Oklahoma state Capitol in 2009, when the Legislature was voting on whether to proclaim his band’s “Do You Realize??” as the official state rock song.


Matthew Mungle
Credit: Mark Hancock

Where there’s a Wills ...

Moore’s pride and joy, however, is the collection of Western swing musician Bob Wills, including glass discs coated in acetate that house “thousands of hours” of Wills’ radio performances (currently being digitized, courtesy of a grant from the Grammy Foundation), two worn fiddles, a ceramic ashtray in the shape of a grand piano, a humidor and an accompanying cigar collection, still in its wrapping.

A white, long-sleeve oxford is emblazoned with “Light Crust Doughboys,” which, Moore said, comes from Wills’ days in Texas, when he and His Texas Playboys band performed on a radio program sponsored by the Burrus Mills flour company.

“There’s so much to the Wills collection,” Moore said. “The more we look at it, the more we research it, the artifacts being preserved now … it’s not just clothing, photographs, letters, audio recordings — it’s everything.

OK Pop Museum recently was up for a $20 million bond issue in the Oklahoma Legislature; it passed the Senate, but failed to come up for a vote in the House.

“Not the ideal situation. However, I think we will be able to go ahead and start the architect selection process,” Moore said, noting he believes the House vote will happen next year. “We wouldn’t need the full bulk of the bond issue for construction until 2014, anyway.”

He said he’s confident the Oklahoma Historical Society has enough financial and political support to pull it off.

“We get calls on a daily basis, ‘I’ve got this collection, I want you to preserve it.’ It gives us an opportunity to preserve those collections, but it also gives us more responsibility as a state agency. That’s an exciting thing,” he said. “There’s still a lot more to collect and a lot more stories to share, so that’s what we’re going to do. If we’re not going to collect it, who’s going to? A fire may happen. We’re in tornado alley. It’s important that these things come together.”

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