A collection of more than 4,500 pieces of Leon Russell memorabilia has been donated to the proposed Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture — contingent on the state’s coming up with a $42.5 million bond issue to build the museum, called OK POP.
Russell attended a news conference Tuesday to announce the donation by Houston oilman Steve Todoroff. The 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee said he was pleased with the plans to include him and other popular Oklahoma performers in a museum so close to his former haunts in the Brady Arts District.
“I normally get arrested in this area, and now I’ve got a museum,” Russell said.
Chances for state financing for the museum are uncertain. The Oklahoma Historical Society has been lobbying for the project for years, and last year the state Senate approved a bond issue for the plan, but the proposal died in the state House.
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said the state can finance the bond proposal for the project without increasing state appropriations to his agency because his agency is retiring other bonds.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, appeared at Tuesday’s news conference and remembered driving slowly past Leon Russell’s Tulsa home as a teenager, hoping to overhear music being performed inside.
“I tell my kids and my grandchildren about the music of my time. Sometimes they don’t believe it,” he said. “What a great opportunity, if we had these collections right here in Tulsa.”
Bingman encouraged supporters of the museum project to contact their legislators and emphasize its importance.
“We will get it done,” he said.
Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, also appeared at the announcement.
The museum is not a Tulsa project or a regional project, but a project for the entire state, he said.
Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett told the crowd about getting to listen to Russell fiddle around on the piano while Bartlett was part of a contractor group building a home for the musician on Grand Lake.
“The music that would come out of that man’s mind and onto his fingers was just incredible,” Bartlett said.
The state runs 32 museums, but not one of them is in Tulsa, the mayor noted.
“This is our time … and it should be right here, right across the street, in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Bartlett said.
Blackburn presented Russell with a picture of an architect’s rendering of one possible look for the museum with Russell’s face projected on giant screens outside the building.
Russell, who graduated from Rogers High School, gave Blackburn a picture of himself with cowboy film star and one-time Oklahoman Gene Autry and a Nashville artist’s flamboyant fabric portrait of Russell.
Todoroff, a self-described hoarder, has spent years documenting Russell’s career in pictures, posters, recordings and concert tickets. He said he made the donation in part because he was running out of space under beds, in closets and in his office, and in part because it was time to get the material out to the public.
“It was just time,” he said.
“It was timely, too, for the OK POP museum, as well. Once they found out I had the collection, they made contact, and it just was a good idea to get it in front of the people, especially in Tulsa.”
Todoroff, a semiretired crude-oil trader, grew up in Bixby and started his career in Tulsa.
He didn’t hold back any element of his collection.
“Do I miss parts of it? Yes, I do,” he said.
For his part, Russell said he was glad someone else was documenting his career.
“I, myself, am not an archivist,” he said.
“I can’t keep my receipts for taxes.”