By Michael Swanger
Few American icons are as deeply embedded in our nation’s collective conscious as John Wayne. His enduring masculine image, beliefs, morals, patriotism, rugged individualism and unwavering popularity 36 years after his death continue to be a unifying force within our society and they serve as a powerful reminder of his Iowa roots that helped shape him as an adult. So it is befitting that the new John Wayne Birthplace Museum — the only museum in the world devoted to preserving Wayne’s immense legacy — is built and will host its grand opening May 23-25 in Winterset, where “Duke” was born.
“My dad would be so proud of the museum,” said Aissa Wayne, who appeared with her famous father in classic cowboy films like “The Alamo” and “McLintock!” and wrote the book “John Wayne, My Father.” “He knew that he was popular, but he didn’t know how much people cared about him and loved him and appreciated everything he did. What he tried to do his whole life was to make an impression about American values. What’s so amazing is here we are 30-some years after his death in his hometown and there’s a museum going up in his honor and people will visit it from all over the world … I can’t explain how much it means to me.”
Plans for the $2.5 million, 5,000-square-foot John Wayne Birthplace Museum were hatched a few years ago and construction began in April 2014. Officials say the museum will attract diehard and casual Wayne fans alike and will be a boon for state and local tourism.
“Two-thirds of our funding is from individuals who sent in checks from $5 to $500, whether they’re a fan from Kentucky, or a retired Army general in Illinois,” said Brian Downes, executive director of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. “It’s a reflection of John Wayne’s fan base. Everybody loves him.”
Scott Eyman, the New York Times bestselling author of “John Wayne, The Life and Legend,” will serve as the keynote speaker at the museum’s ribbon cutting. He described the new museum as “a huge deal.”
“Museums dedicated to movie stars of the past are mostly modest, upstairs rooms in a courthouse or some such thing,” he said. “A freestanding, custom-built museum is a totem of Wayne’s place in the hearts of Middle America, which has never really waned, even though he’s been dead for a long time. I expect it to become a considerable tourist destination for years to come.”
The museum’s grand opening coincides with the annual John Wayne Birthday Celebration. Festivities include a benefit dinner and auction featuring country music superstar Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, tours of the John Wayne Birthplace House and Birthplace Museum, free movies and special guests like Christopher Mitchum and Aissa Wayne, both of whom appeared in some of Wayne’s biggest movies.
The main attraction will be the opening of the interactive Birthplace Museum. Its curbside appeal includes new streetscaping provided by the City of Winterset and a $175,000 bronze statue of Duke donated by Wayne’s family that adorns the museum’s plaza.
Inside, visitors will discover a large gallery divided into sections that reflect Wayne’s life and career: “American,” “Actor” and “Family Man.” The museum houses a gift shop and a small movie theater with a marquee modeled after the local Winterset movie house. The theater’s seats are from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the legendary Hollywood movie palace that opened in 1927 and hosted countless premieres like Wayne’s 1930 film “The Big Trail.”
Most impressive, perhaps, is the museum’s large and diverse collection of rare artifacts and memorabilia, including original movie posters, film wardrobe, scripts, letters, photos, contracts, artwork and Wayne’s personal date and address books. The one-of-a-kind collection, appraised at $2 million, was donated by Joseph Zuckschwerdt, president of the John Wayne Birthplace Society in Winterset, who began amassing it 40 years ago.