What kind of man wears an emerald green velvet tuxedo to the Oscars? Just how big are basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s hands? And why should the name Charlotta Bass be better known than it is?
The answers can be found at the new California Hall of Fame artifact exhibit, open through Aug. 30 at the California Museum.
The exhibit aims to bring to life the achievements of this year’s inductees into the California Hall of Fame – Abdul-Jabbar, civil rights activist Bass, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, literary superstar Joan Didion, music producer Jimmy Iovine, union organizer Fred Ross Sr., environmental scientist Stephen Schneider, founder of San Francisco’s Delaney Street Foundation Mimi Silbert, and musician Andre “Dr. Dre” Young – through personal items, photos and videos.
Though the exhibit is on the smallish side (easily covered in 30 minutes), it does a fine job showcasing the breadth of experiences of California’s people.
“You have a civil rights activist next to an author next to a basketball player, so you really get the idea of the richness of California,” said curator Amanda Meeker. “It’s a juxtaposition of the different things that people have accomplished here in California.”
Back to that green tux: It was worn by Coppola when he accepted the Oscar for best adapted screenplay in 1973 for “The Godfather.” Footage of the telecast shows the director as a young man sporting the ensemble – with a thick black beard, full head of hair and red rose fastened to his lapel – talking about how he was “nervous” that he wouldn’t get the chance to make his acceptance speech. The suit itself is displayed with his Oscar.
“What I like so much about it, you see the Oscars, but you don’t always see suits like this,” Meeker said. “It’s completely memorable, very idiosyncratic. Not every man would wear that suit. It speaks to who he is.”
Around the corner is a basketball sent in by Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons in the NBA and was an NBA All-Star 19 times, with his handprint pressed on to the surface with paint. Patrons are free to touch it, measuring their own digits against the legend’s – a literal hands-on experience for the hundreds of school kids, mostly 4th-graders studying state history, who troop through weekly.
“The top of my fingers barely reach to his palm,” Meeker said. “You can see why the man was perfect for basketball.”
There are plenty of scientific and social accomplishments to learn about as well. Take Charlotta Bass (1874-1969). This pioneering woman was the editor of the largest African American newspaper on the West Coast: The California Eagle.
From her print pulpit in Los Angeles, she was a fierce advocate for not only the rights of African Americans, but of all minorities. In 1952, she became the first African American woman nominated for vice president of the United States, running with legendary lawyer Vincent Hallinan on the Progressive ticket.
Bass died with no immediate family, making it hard to source personal items for the display, Meeker said. Instead, her section features photos and samples of the metal linotype plates that she would have used to painstakingly build each word of her paper.
“She certainly is another of those people that you haven’t heard of, but was such an impressive person,” Meeker said.
Nearby is the display for literary lioness and Sacramento native Joan Didion, heartbreaking with photos of her beautiful adopted daughter Quintana Roo, who died at age 39 (a loss Didion chronicled in her 2011 book “Blue Nights”). Her display also includes handwritten pages of manuscripts and her McClatchy High School yearbook.
Didion was one of the most active participants in creating her collection, Meeker said, adding items of her own choosing. Among these are a Vietnam-era telegraph. “110 Americans were killed in action during the week ending March 21, 1970,” it reads with stark and haunting simplicity.
“That was so important to her that she saved it all these years and chose to include it,” Meeker said. “She did not say why.”
California Hall of Fame artifact exhibit
What: Rarely seen personal items from the 2014 HOF inductees
When: Through Aug. 30.
Where: 1020 O St., Sacramento
Museum admission: Adults ($9); youths 6-17 ($6.50); students and seniors ($7.50); kids 5 and under (free).
Information: www.californiamuseum.org; (916) 653-7524