Oklahoma @ the Movies examines Sooners' cinema connections

History Center exhibit looks at Oklahomans' roles in creating, starring in and going to the movies.
BY GENE TRIPLETT etriplett@opubco.com Published: May 11, 2012
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Who knew that the pretty blonde woman who comes face to face with Mrs. Bates in the climactic scene of “Psycho” was little Vera Jean Ralston of Boise City?

Or that the neurotic whiner who played Rock Hudson's buddy in all those Doris Day comedies was Arthur Leonard Rosenberg, from Tulsa?

Or that the guy who guided Peter Sellers to international stardom in the “Pink Panther” series was William Blake Crump, also from Tulsa?

Or that the blacklisted screenwriter who won an Oscar for “A Place in the Sun” and a posthumous Academy Award for “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” grew up in McAlester?

The first three are better known as actress Vera Miles, actor Tony Randall and director Blake Edwards, and the beleaguered screenwriter was Michael Wilson, who wrote or co-wrote some of the most critically revered works in film history, including “It's a Wonderful Life,” “Friendly Persuasion,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and the original “Planet of the Apes.”

Oklahoma movie buffs can learn all this and more about their state's major contributions to the film art and industry when the Oklahoma History Center opens its latest pop-culture exhibit, “Oklahoma @ the Movies,” on Tuesday.

“It's all about Oklahomans on the screen, Oklahomans behind the screen, the image of Oklahoma in the movies and going to the movies in Oklahoma,” said exhibit curator and Director of Collections Larry O'Dell as he stood in the middle of a vast roomful of memorabilia, artifacts, props and vintage equipment from the world of filmmaking.

One of the first sights a visitor encounters upon entering the museum's Inasmuch exhibit hall is a strip of red carpet leading into the “Awards Section,” where five Oscar statuettes are displayed in a lighted glass case.

There's the Best Actress trophy won by Tulsa native Phylis Lee Isley — better known as Jennifer Jones — for her work in the title role of “The Song of Bernadette” in 1943.

That Best Supporting Actor Oscar belonged to Walters-born Emmett Evan Heflin Jr. — aka Van Heflin — for his turn in the 1942 crime thriller “Johnny Eager” as the intellectual, alcoholic best friend of Robert Taylor's title character.

Blake Edward's honorary Oscar for his body of work as a writer, director and producer is on view, and so is Oklahoma City-based producer Gray Frederickson's Best Picture award for “The Godfather Part II.”

And perhaps the most interesting Oscar is that of screenwriter Michael Wilson.

“He won the Oscar for ‘A Place in the Sun' (1951, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor) and then he got blacklisted,” O'Dell said. “He kept it with a black hood on (his Oscar statuette). His daughter loaned it to us and so we're going to have a black hood on it, and then tell the story of his blacklisting. So that's gonna be fun.”

On the scene

The glittering centerpiece of the exhibit is the colorful, neon-lighted State Theater facade, complete with towering 20-foot sign, glowing marquee announcing “Express Employment Professionals Present ‘Oklahoma!'” and a glassed-in box office occupied by a life-size video of an actress in an old-fashioned theater usherette uniform, giving an overview of what's about to happen inside.

Visitors can then actually enter the theater and find themselves on a meticulously recreated set from the 1955 Rodgers and Hammerstein film “Oklahoma!” Here, they can don pieces of costumes and play a scene from the movie, reading from copies of the script, while a camera allows everyone to watch themselves on a monitor screen.

Another big attraction in this “in front of the screen” section is a scaled-down drive-in theater with seats resembling the front and rear end of a 1965 Mustang convertible. Here, visitors can watch a documentary about drive-ins by Oklahoma author John Wooley, told through the eyes of the late B-movie actor and producer John Ashley, who was born in Kansas City, Mo., but lived in Tulsa.

“He started off doing ‘Dragstrip Girl' and he was always the second lead in the ‘Beach Blanket Bingo'-type of movies with Annette Funicello,” O'Dell said. “And then he went on to do late '60s, early '70s horror movies, kind of the Roger Corman type of stuff. He had that career and he owned three or four drive-ins in the state.”

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IF YOU GO

‘Oklahoma @ the Movies'

When: Opens 10 a.m. Tuesday. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Where: Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive.

Admission: adults $7, seniors $5, students $4, children 5 and under, veterans and active military, free.

Information: 522-0765.

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