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  • Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

    Mickey Mouse hats given to President Ronald Reagan are on display at his presidential library in Simi Valley.

  • Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press file 1991

    Former President Ronald Reagan and Poland's President Lech Walesa pose with a piece of the Berlin Wall in Simi Valley.

Multimedia exhibits highlight Reagan library

Published: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 12:17 am

Editor's note: With the 2012 presidential campaign heating up, The Bee takes you on a trip to California's two presidential libraries – the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.

There are 13 presidential libraries in the United States, and Southern California is the lone metropolitan area to boast two. Each reflects the personality of its respective president and the tenor of the times.

According to statistics gathered by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Reagan library in 2011 received the most visitors (367,506) of any museum; the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill., was second with 293,135 visitors. The Nixon library ranked No. 10 with 81,738 visitors.

SIMI VALLEY – He was ready for his close-up, Mr. DeMille. He fidgeted before the green screen at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, as a scene from "Knute Rockne: All American," that 1940 cinematic gem, popped up with the mere press of a button.

Suddenly, Roland Roaches, a middle-aged software analyst from Chicago, was staring at a young Reagan portraying George "The Gipper" Gipp, arms crossed over his natty tweed jacket and eyes beaming with the light of the righteous and the ill-fated.

Cue the line …

Uh, Roland, that's your line there at the bottom of the monitor. C'mon, the Gipper's waiting …

"George," he began, "we'd like our two boys to grow up just like you some day."

Cut to the Gipper …

"Play football?"

"No, not just that," Roaches said, not exactly with Brando-like emotion, "to have your poise and thoughtfulness."

"Did Rock say that?"

"Yes. He said those qualities are rare in a boy your age."

"No, Rock's the real one, not me … "

And here Reagan emotes during a soliloquy about the famous Notre Dame football coach, reaching a crescendo of pathos with the proclamation, "He's given us something they don't teach in schools, something clean and strong inside, not just courage but a right way of living. … Don't tell Rock I said that. He'd think I was an awful sap."

At long last, it was Roaches' line again.

"Oh, that's funny George. He said the same thing about you …"

The Gipper coughs once, twice, into his hand, portentously wincing with the pain.

"I better get you something for that cough."

"I'm all right," the Gipper bravely answers. "It's just a little sore throat."

With that, Roaches sheepishly got up off the chair, looked around to see if anyone was looking, then smiled and walked to the video screen to replay his acting debut. As it played out, Roland looking a tad wooden on-screen, his partner laughed herself silly and gave him the finger-across-the-throat sign, universally meaning "cut."

Yes, at the Reagan presidential library, you can communicate with the so-called "Great Communicator." You can broadcast a baseball game with our 40th president, too, or deliver one of his G.E. radio addresses, or stand behind a lectern with the presidential seal and read his 1980 inaugural address from a Teleprompter. (Alas, you cannot yet act opposite Reagan and an impish chimp in "Bedtime for Bonzo.")

Fitting, in a way, that visitors to the presidential shrine high upon a hill above this Southern California suburb get full multimedia immersion for their $21 admission price, not to mention a bonus exhibit from another master of the filmic medium, Walt Disney.

For Reagan was, perhaps inarguably, one of our most telegenic commanders in chief, a charismatic personality who used his early acting training to forge a political career that even his opponents say was the role of a lifetime.

It's all documented inside the Spanish Mission architectural marvel that spans a verdant 100 acres amid the brown, scrub-brush hillsides.

From the bigger-than-life bronze statue of Reagan out front to the merely life-size statues of Ron and Nancy inside; from his sainted mother Nell's Bible to his high school swimming medals; from the 1964 "Rendezvous With Destiny" speech that launched his political career to the 1987 "Tear Down This Wall" speech that culminated it; from the chilling 1981 assassination attempt to his landslide 1984 re-election; from repose on the ranch in jeans to waltzing with Nancy at state dinners; it's all cast in amber hues and accompanied with swelling strings.

Whatever your political affiliation, you must admit the man knew the value of presentation.

His eight years in office and, before that, two terms as governor of California and Act 1 as an actor follow a distinct narrative arc in the exhibit. It's presented like a decades-long winning streak, with nary a bump in the road.

OK, maybe a bump or two.

Reagan's first marriage to actress Jane Wyman, which ended in divorce, is all but glossed over, given only a single photograph and paragraph in the gallery. Conversely, his marriage to Nancy Davis is splashed all over the numerous wings, including its own dedicated gallery.

Likewise, the big scandal of the Reagan administration – the Iran-contra affair – is limited to a single panel giving the timeline of the secret arms-for-hostages deal and Reagan's explanatory speech to the nation in 1987: " … The reason I hadn't spoken to you before now is this: You deserve the truth."

Sorry, but these incidents, such downers, just don't fit cohesively into the prescribed plot lines.

It wasn't always so slick. The library, built with no government funding "because that's the way Reagan would've wanted it," according to the website, opened in 1991 as little more than a repository for Reagan's presidential memorabilia and acting souvenirs. But in 2011, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation finished a $15 million renovation to make the library fully interactive and compelling even to those who voted for Mondale in '84.

Because it is privately funded (though the National Archives helps run the library), the museum exudes a cozy corporate feel. Every gallery bears the name of a rich donor or corporation – to wit, the "Herbert and Elinor Nootbar Presidential Courtyard" and the "Great Communicator Gallery, made possible by the generosity of General Electric" – but that doesn't diminish the historic items found within the walls.

There is the blue suit, with visible bullet holes, that Reagan wore on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley Jr., shot him. There is a 10-foot slab of the Berlin Wall erected in the garden. There is the erstwhile Air Force One. There are his diaries penned in his distinctive hurried scrawl. There is this telegram he sent to Nancy in 1947, stating, "Powder down your lipstick. I am on the downhill side of Albuquerque. I love you. Ronnie."

And there are enough video clips to envelope the senses in one long montage.

"… No nation in history has ever survived a tax burden that has reached a third of its national income. … Berlin is divided as you know in the east, or sick with communism, side, and the well, or Western side. … It's morning again in America. … You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We'll preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness. … Well, there you go again. … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Just when you're thoroughly immersed in Reaganalia, along comes a wing devoted to … Walt Disney?

It is a temporary exhibit (for the next seven months) and, at first, the connection seems tenuous, an example of the Disneyfication of the Reagan presidency.

What viewers get is a 12,000-square-foot exhibit featuring costumes, props, original animation and sketches culled from decades of Disney films, "Steamboat Willie" to "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Tourists perusing the Disney wing seemed pleased, if slightly bewildered, by the abrupt switch from Reagan to Mickey Mouse.

"We discussed it on the way in," said Jenny Dean, visiting the library from London with her son, Julian. "I asked, 'What is the link?' But I just happened to see, as you go in, that among the patrons of the museum was Walt Disney. So, I guess it fits."

Or, as Aaron Hill and his brood from Orem, Utah, enthused, "We brought the kids all the way from Utah for this, and we probably wouldn't have come if there wasn't Disney."

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library

Where: 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., daily

Cost: $21 adults; $18 seniors ages 62-plus; $15 youths ages 11-17; $6 children ages 3-10; free for children 2 and under

More information: www.reaganfoundation.orgEditor's note: With the 2012 presidential campaign heating up, The Bee takes you on a trip to California's two presidential libraries – the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.

There are 13 presidential libraries in the United States, and Southern California is the lone metropolitan area to boast two. Each reflects the personality of its respective president and the tenor of the times.

According to statistics gathered by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Reagan library in 2011 received the most visitors (367,506) of any museum; the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill., was second with 293,135 visitors. The Nixon library ranked No. 10 with 81,738 visitors.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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