Warner Bros. Museum
nears 10th anniversary
Setting the historic Warner Bros. Studios apart from the five other major motion picture studios in the film colony is the treasure-filled, 7,000 square-foot museum built in 1996 on the Warner lot in Burbank, Calif. Under the supervision of curator Leith Adams, USC graduate and knowledgeable WB archivist, the museum was formally opened June 13, 1996.
Staffed by docents, former studio employees/or well-informed guides with charisma, the museum on opening day featured over 650 WB artifacts on two floors of exhibits.
The first floor displayed items from “The First 50 Years,” while the second floor exhibited animation displays illustrating the colorful history of animation, including an amazing feature on which visitors could have their pictures taken with Bugs Bunny, a beloved character docent Martha Goldman Sigall had worked on in Bugs’ early days.
Jack Warner co-founded Warner Bros. Studios with his brothers, Abe, Sam and Harry. Jack, the last Warner to reign over the 101-acre motion picture studio, decreed from the very beginning in 1927 that nothing should be discarded. As a result, Warner Bros. Studios has one of the most impressive collections of vintage costumes, props and movie memorabilia in the world today.
In 1991, after the death of Ann Warner, Jack’s second wife, Jack Warner’s baronial Beverly Hills mansion was sold furnished to David Geffen for $47 million in cash. Jack had died there in 1978. The mansion, like the studio itself, was filled with treasured film memorabilia. Some of which was sold.
The USC School of Cinema-Television in 1976 had become the custodian of a vast amount of Warner Bros. Studios’ records and movie memorabilia. Jack Warner sold the studio in 1966.
By 1995 the studio had changed hands several times. In the 1990s co-CEOs of Warner Bros. Studios, Terry Semel and Bob Daly, recognized the importance of Warner Bros. history. The Warner Bros. Museum was subsequently built adjoining the newly-constructed Steven J. Ross Theatre within a few feet of the famed New York Street, site of filming for many WB films.
Before the grand opening at the studio, co-CEO Bob Daly, according to “Daily Variety” (6/3/96), stated, “It’s a fascinating history for anybody who cares about the motion picture business.”
We were at the studio with actress Jane Withers (“Giant”) also starring James Dean, etc. and studio executive Shirley Krims for the museum’s third anniversary. It was at this time we first met curator and corporate archivist Leith Adams and award-winning animation artist Martha Goldman Sigall (“Looney Tunes”/”Merrie Melodies”) and her husband, Sol, also a museum docent.
During the first year alone, over 32,000 visitors toured the museum’s exhibits. That number has grown significantly each year. Since our first visit, Martha Goldman Sigall has authored an engaging and very readable book on animation, “Living Life Inside the Lines: Tales from the Golden Age of Animation.”
Among other exhibits on the main floor that summer were items from the career of James Dean, including his Triumph Trophy 500 motorcycle that Dean had ridden often around the studio until Jack Warner banned the motorcycle from studio property. The motorcycle was on loan from the James Dean Estate and Foundation.
The first floor exhibits have changed three times during the museum’s 10-year history. The second floor exhibits, starting with the animation displays, have changed four times.
After meeting with Leith Adams in front of the museum on our most recent visit, we had the pleasure of touring the new exhibits with our good friends Martha and Sol. Among the attractively-arranged exhibits are the displays featuring items from TV shows, including “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Wonder Women,” “West Wing,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “ER,” “Eight is Enough,” “Falcon Crest,” “Gilmore Girls and “The Waltons” with the 1972-73 Emmy Award for Outstanding Dramatic Series. The costumes worn by Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Chamberlain in “The Thornbirds” caught our attention as well.
As we approached the second floor to view the popular “Harry Potter” exhibits, we passed a realistic-looking, life-sized Hagrid holding the infant Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter franchise has become a major asset for Warner Bros. Studios. The four films alone have grossed over $1.3 billion. The eye-arresting “Harry Potter” exhibits are as magical and amazing as are the films and novels.
A docent asked us to sit on the Sorting Stool and don the Sorting Hat (a patched wizard’s hat). A wizard-like voice in the Sorting Hat announced we were of the house of Gryffindor. The other three Houses at Hogwarts are Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. Many of the creatures from “Harry Potter” are also on display in life-like exhibits.
The museum adds a very special, magical experience for all who visit. Leith Adams and his personable and well-informed docents, like Martha and Sol, are unique assets for Time Warner in general and for Warner Bros. Studios in particular.
Shortly after my recent visit to Warner Bros. Studios, a Time Warner corporate decision asked all departments at the studio to trim their budgets to a certain percentage. Unfortunately according to “The Hollywood Reporter” (11-16-05), over 200 studio employees were given pink slips. There was, naturally, concern that the one-of-a-kind studio museum would be adversely affected in corporate cost-cutting moves that could have been “penny wise, but pound foolish.”
We are happy to learn the museum remains open. Hours, however, have been shortened and the second-floor exhibits are available to groups who have made special arrangements.
In a recent book by a Warner granddaughter we are reminded of the Warner Bros. motto: “Educate, entertain and enlighten.” We feel the Warner Bros. Museum helps perpetuate that Hollywood legacy.
This summer, in June, the Warner Bros. Museum will celebrate its 10th anniversary.