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New museum in John Wayne’s Iowa hometown celebrates his life

May 20, 2015
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Tourists walk past an Andy Warhol print of John Wayne on display in the John Wayne Museum, Thursday, May 14, 2015, in Winterset, Iowa. Though Wayne moved to California at a young age, it’s a minor footnote for Winterset, a city of about 5,000 people. On Saturday, May 23, 2015, Winterset will help launch the official opening of the newly built museum celebrating Wayne’s life and career. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Tourists walk past an Andy Warhol print of John Wayne on display in the John Wayne Museum, Thursday, May 14, 2015, in Winterset, Iowa. Though Wayne moved to California at a young age, it’s a minor footnote for Winterset, a city of about 5,000 people. On Saturday, May 23, 2015, Winterset will help launch the official opening of the newly built museum celebrating Wayne’s life and career. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

WINTERSET, Iowa (AP) — A new museum is opening in the town where John Wayne was born celebrating the late actor’s life, career and local connections.

Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset in 1907. Although he moved to California at a young age, Winterset has been showcasing his local roots for years. In addition to the new museum, the small wooden house where he was born offers tours and there’s a large bronze statue of the actor in his signature cowboy hat.

“One of the things that keep a small town alive is to share their history,” said Shirley Roach, owner of a boutique in town that devotes a section to John Wayne merchandise. “John Wayne is a part of our history.”

The new 6,100-square-foot (567-sq. meter) museum officially opens Saturday on the same block as his birthplace. The museum displays his film wardrobes, a signed Andy Warhol print of the actor and his customized 1972 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon. It’s parked inside the gallery, near decorative wooden panels from the closing barroom fight scene of Wayne’s final film, “The Shootist.”

Visitors can also see an ashtray from his yacht, his briefcase, his personal address book — with contact information for Ronald Reagan when he was the California governor — and the eye patch Wayne wore in the movie “True Grit.”

Brian Downes, executive director of the $2.5 million museum, said the museum was built partly because tours of his childhood home were not enough to satisfy his fans. Long lines at the house meant the tours “could only be 20 minutes long,” he said. “There was a frustration there ... It was really time to step up.”

Wayne, who was nicknamed the Duke, died in 1979.

The museum was funded over seven years through grants and private donations, including door-to-door pledges from residents of Winterset, population 5,000. “It was a dream for a little town to accomplish something like this,” Downes said.

Not all museums about 20th century celebrities remain successful. The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pennsylvania, has seen a decrease in attendees and financial support over the years. A museum dedicated to Liberace closed in 2010 near Las Vegas after more than 30 years in business.

But Ruth Reed, a tour guide for Wayne’s birthplace, said the Duke has staying power. Over the years, she’s welcomed visitors from around the world. A recent Friday included visitors from Florida, Ireland, New Zealand and Puerto Rico.

“He’s still one of the top 10 movie stars in people’s memories,” she said. “Who do we have today that has anything that you’d even care to honor?”

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If You Go...

JOHN WAYNE BIRTHPLACE & MUSEUM: 205 S. John Wayne Drive, Winterset, Iowa; http://johnwaynebirthplace.museum , 515-462-1044. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. except major holidays. Adults, $15; seniors, $14; children, $8. Winterset is about 30 miles southwest of Des Moines and 150 miles north of Kansas City, Missouri.

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Associated Press Writer Barbara Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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