During the 1940s, when I was growing up in Oklahoma City, the only air-conditioned places we knew about were movie theaters. They were advertised as “cool” places for hot afternoons — especially Saturdays with double features.
Now, more than half a century later, Oklahoma summer afternoons are still hot, and some museums are providing cool theaters to get out of the summer heat.
More importantly, museums increasingly are using movies to expand the interpretive impact of their stories.
The “Oklahoma @ the Movies” exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City provides a major example of presenting history through movies. Other Oklahoma museums with movie projects include the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid, the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur and the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan.
“Movies and documentaries in a museum setting are effective tools for sharing history with the general public,” said Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “You can either connect through shared memory of popular theatrical films or summarize complex historical stories through the creative use of scripted short films.
“The iconic movie ‘Shane' is a good example of shared memory that opens the door to Oklahoma history,” Blackburn said. Visitors also learn that three Oklahoma actors starred in “Shane,” said Blackburn, including Ben Johnson Jr., a cowboy from Osage County, Alan Ladd, who grew up in Oklahoma City during the Great Depression, and Van Heflin, who was born in Walters and attended the University of Oklahoma.
History Center visitors can sit and watch film in different ways, said Larry O'Dell of the OHS staff. In the drive-in section, visitors can sit in a 1965 Mustang and watch a documentary film on Tulsa native John Ashley, who appeared in movies catering to drive-ins for more than three decades and owned several drive-ins in Oklahoma.
The Tom Mix Museum provides “wild Western action,” said Kathy Dickson, director of the OHS Museum and Historic Sites Division. Tom Mix, known as “King of the Cowboys,” made 335 films during his career, and most were westerns.
“Tom and Tony, the Wonder Horse, enjoyed unprecedented fame during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s,” said Dickson. “Tom boasted that any mother could take her child to all his movies, since he never drank, smoked or cursed on screen. The Tom Mix Museum houses a collection of Tom Mix's guns, costumes and saddles and includes a small theater where visitors can enjoy a silent film or a “talkie.”
In Enid, the newly opened Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Museum presents the Land Run Theater, where visitors can sit in replica wagon seats to experience the excitement and chaos of the Cherokee Strip Land Run, Dickson said. The production introduces visitors to hopeful homesteaders and follows them through the 1893 land run — “the world's biggest horse race,” said Dickson.
The Will Rogers Memorial Museum features Will Rogers, who was born on a ranch near Oologah and became the top U.S. male motion-picture box office star in 1935, when he died in an airplane crash with Wiley Post in Alaska. He starred in more than 70 films, including 21 talkies for Twentieth Century-Fox, said Steven Gragert, director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museums.
“We showcase daily one of his Fox films in the museum's Movie Mini-Theatre,” said Gragert. “Visitors can enjoy the naturalness of Will's acting ability and meet him on the screen as if they are meeting him firsthand.”
The Chickasaw Cultural Center was designed and built by the Chickasaw people, said Amanda Cobb-Greetham, administrator of the Chickasaw Nation Division of History and Culture. The center presents the Chickasaw Nation's culture through film as well as demonstrations, music, exhibits and food.
“Chickasaw Renaissance,” a 17-minute film, is shown to guests as they enter the Chickasha Poya Exhibit Hall. The film traces the history of the Chickasaw Nation and allows the guests to “hear the Chickasaw language, listen to our music and hear our stories,” said Cobb-Greetham. The Anoli Theater presents a 40-foot-high screen that features Native American-themed movies.
The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center features the “settlement of the southern Great Plains as well as the historic Chisholm Trail and has received 21 awards,” said Leah Mulkey, education coordinator and office manager. The center's T.H. McCasland Jr. Experience Theater offers a “fascinating look back into the life, hardships and historical significance of the Chisholm Trail on film,” said Mulkey.
“Guests enjoy the aroma of coffee as they watch cowboys having breakfast at a chuckwagon,” said Mulkey. “As the scene shifts to a sea of cattle, the air fills with the smell of dust, the rumble of thunder and lightning searing the dark sky.”
All this reflects the remarkable ways museums are bringing Oklahoma history to life through movies while providing comfortable and enjoyable experiences amid hot summers, which also are part of Oklahoma history.
Max Nichols writes a monthly column for the Oklahoma Historical Society.