Route 66 is the legendary road from Chicago to Santa Monica that defined and highlighted changes in the U.S. in the 20th century. It gave birth to great literature, funky motels and restaurants born along the route, like McDonalds. A new Route 66 exhibit that opens Sunday at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles explores the history, romance and decline of the road.
The “Route 66: The Road and the Romance” exhibit looks at 2,400-mile road and its impact on the country, including the high and low culture evident on or inspired by the road. The show will run through January 4, 2015.
The show brings together historical artifacts, artwork depicting the various periods, as well as entertainment and books inspired by the highway. Of course, visitors can listen to Bobby Troup’s song about “getting your kicks on Route 66” too; there’s also a jukebox containing 120 versions of song that was recorded by Nat King Cole’s trio, the Rolling Stones and more than 120 others.
The exhibition starts with an overview of the industrial and technological changes in American life that paved the way for the first federal roads act in 1916. The public postal system also began delivering mail to rural homes around the turn of the century and needed roads to do it. This part of the exhibit includes an 1895 Columbia bicycle and a Model T engine. There are also paintings from Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollack, an early work before he developed his signature style. This section of the display concludes with the establishment of Route 66 in 1926, featuring promotional materials that developed its reputation as the “Main Street of America.”
The Dust Bowl and Great Depression sent thousands of refugees down Route 66 in search of work. There are iconic photographs by Dorothea Lange, Horace Bristol, and Arthur Rothstein reflecting their plight and journey down the Mother Road to California’s proclaimed promised land. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has become the classic portrayal of this period in print and film. The exhibit has a handwritten page from The Grapes of Wrath manuscript that introduces the “Mother Road,” as well as John Ford’s Best Director Oscar from the film version.
Another traveler on Route 66 was musician Woody Guthrie. One of his Martin guitars, along with hand-drawn lyrics and sketches, and various personal effects are on display. Visitors can also listen to some of his acclaimed Dust Bowl music.
Route 66’s golden age came after World War II, as increased tourism, the Baby Boom and a growing car culture turned the highway into a major thoroughfare. Gas stations, new restaurants and new types of lodges along the road that became known as motels sprung up.
The emerging youth generation also made use of the new highway. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript, a 120-foot-long scroll, single-spaced on a typewriter, that details life on the move and is on display in Los Angeles for the first time, along with a digital version visitors can explore.
The Autry exhibit does not sugar coat negative aspects of the Route 66 history, including Native American stereotyping in promotional souvenirs and depictions and the segregation Blacks had to deal with along the route. One item on display is a Negro Travelers Green Book, which was published annually from 1936 to 1966 to let blacks know which lodgings, business and gas stations would serve them, not just on Route 66. It also indicated which cities were “sundown towns,” places not to be caught in after dark.
In the late 1950s, Route 66 was bypassed by the Interstate Highway System and its popularity was further diminished by air travel. The exhibition documents the physical decline of the road and its surrounding businesses, a decline portrayed in the film Cars, which introduced the highway to a new generation. The popular character, Mater, was inspired by a real tow truck the creative team encountered rusting along Route 66 when they were researching things for the movie. This section of the exhibit shows early research photos, sketches, models, storyboards and finally merchandise from the picture.
The road was decommissioned in 1985. However, the exhibition ends with the attempts by the National Park Service and preservationists to restore and revive the road’s rich history and heritage.
Richard “Rick” West, Jr., the museum’s president and CEO, related that he grew up taking the journey from Oklahoma to California to visit relatives. “Those of us who grew up along the route know it well,” he noted.
Autry National Center of the American West is located at 4700 Western Heritage Way, next to the Los Angeles Zoo, coincidently not far from where Route 66 went through parts of Los Angeles. After the Autry Route 66 exhibit on the romance of that road, it is possible to go explore parts of it.
By Dyanne Weiss
Autry National Center of the American West
Tour of Exhibit