Jimi, Dorothy and Prince star in Smithsonian’s new exhibit



A 50-year-old piece of plywood stained with traces of psychedelic painting was installed in a third-floor exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History this month.

It’s a simple artifact – about 4ft by 8 – but one sacred to rock ‘n’ roll history.

It was part of the stage at the Woodstock music festival where the 1969 rock titans cavorted in front of nearly half a million people, marking a milestone for a generation and the 20th century.

And it’s part of the extensive new exhibit about the history of entertainment, which includes Prince’s Yellow Cloud guitar, Dorothy’s ruby ​​red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Jim Henson’s original Kermit the Frog doll with ping-pong balls for Eyes.

“Entertainment Nation,” which opens Dec. 9, uses music, movies, sports, television and theater to explore pivotal chapters in American history, the museum said.

The project, which has been in the works for ten years, is part of a new cultural wing of the museum that will include a gallery of rotating exhibits, starting with images by fashion photographer Richard Avedon.

“This will be the Smithsonian’s first-ever permanent installation on the nation’s entertainment history,” said museum spokeswoman Melinda Machado.

Some of the items were in other exhibitions. But “Entertainment Nation” includes numerous artifacts that have never been shown before, and many that haven’t been seen in years, Machado said.

Covering the period from the mid-18th century to the present, the exhibition focuses on “current issues that entertainers, athletes, television, theater, film, sports and music have addressed through their art,” said John Troutman, museum curator of music and musical instruments.

“So all the objects on display … serve as channels for important national conversations,” he said. “This is a story about why entertainment has played a role in the history of the United States.”

Anthea M. Hartig, director of the museum since 2019, said, “I inherited this baby and it was a pleasure to help him be born.”

On a recent visit, workers were still busy, lighting was “tuned” and some exhibits were encased in protective covers. “This is a construction site,” Troutman said.

But the crimson dress and white bonnet worn by actress Elizabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale were there, as were the shiny Star Wars droids R2-D2 and C-3PO and the black mask worn by “The Lone Ranger” in the 1950s TV show.

So are heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ boxing gloves from his first fight against Max Schmeling in 1936, jazz great John Coltrane’s saxophone and the black guitar Paul Simon played at his 1991 concert in New York’s Central Park.

Nearby was a record of jazz singer Billie Holiday’s version of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.”

“Capturing the story of this song and the reactions it evoked is crucial,” said music curator Krystal Klingenberg. “This is a song … that clearly speaks to a specific political moment.”

Also in the same case were bandleader John Philip Sousa’s baton and the modified tap shoes worn by Althea Thomas, the organist at Martin Luther King Jr.’s church in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s. Thomas’s shoes have never been exhibited.

The Smithsonian’s “ruby slippers” — one of several pairs used in the 1939 film — have felt soles designed to deaden sound during dance scenes in The Wizard of Oz, said Laura Duff, a spokeswoman for the museum.

Prince’s yellow guitar, which he donated in 1993, is on display for the first time in several years. A high-tech examination of the instrument found it had seven different layers of paint on its surface, Troutman said.

It’s believed to be the late rock star’s first custom guitar, he said, and the one, then painted white, that Prince used in his film Purple Rain.

Another famous guitar on display is the 1968 Fender Stratocaster, which Jimi Hendrix used to play a psychedelic version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – with a brief interlude of “Taps” – on the last day at Woodstock.

The guitar is on loan from Seattle’s MoPOP Museum of Pop Culture. (It will return to Seattle in February.)

“When we came up with this project, we thought, well, if there’s ever time to bring Hendrix’s Woodstock guitar to the Smithsonian, even for a temporary placement…this is it,” Troutman said. The guitar arrived on November 14th.

It hangs near the plywood sheet from the stage where Hendrix was on stage in August 1969 along with Janis Joplin, The Who, Santana, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Max Yasgur the dairy farmer who owned the Woodstock land and one cavalcade of superstars.

The wood, newly protected with an acrylic coating, was installed so that it can be walked on. “We realized that stepping on this wood instead of having it in a glass case would be really fun,” Troutman said.

And a three-page, floor-to-ceiling video of Hendrix playing will be available in the showroom. “So…our audience can stand on the stage and look at Hendrix’s guitar as they watch him sing the national anthem at Woodstock.” trout man said.

After the end of the concert, the stage was dismantled, parts of it were sold and used by local residents.

A few years ago, Troutman heard that much of it had recently been discovered and salvaged by a former local resident, Steve Gold, at an abandoned paddleball court in a forest near the site.

Gold, of New City, NY, said in a phone interview that he grew up near the festival site, attended the events, and saw Hendrix’s performance.

Troutman found it fascinating to include a stage play in the new exhibition. And Gold, 69, a Woodstock fan and entrepreneur, agreed to donate four sheets of the wood to the museum, Troutman said. (They will be filmed in the exhibition.).

“We don’t know what part of the stage they’re coming from,” he said. “But the piece that we install first … has traces of the paint that was painted on the stage that the performers were standing on.” The rest of the stage wasn’t painted like that, he said.

“If you look at stock photos … you will see parts of the stage that are covered in purple and blue paint and certain patterns,” he said. “This color exists on the plywood we install for the opening.”

And it seems to be close to where the musicians stood – or sat, in the case of Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

Woodstock in the late 1960s was a moment when an event “became legendary as it happened… [and] reached epic proportions in terms of the memory of that era,” Troutman said.

“It also stayed in the memories of those who were there for a long time,” he said.


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