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An Autobiography: Chapter 46, Spotlight On the Arts

The Arts have always been an important part of my life: music, art, theatre, dance, literature and films. I wish I could remember the very first exposure to all the arts, but time has erased many events I am sorry to say.

I vaguely remember the first music. I think I was about six years old and staying at a day nursery in Covington, Kentucky, next door to a Methodist church. The kids at the nursery were invited to attend a music event at the church, and we were all mystified at what we saw and heard. A man played music on a Theremin! Eerie music coming from nowhere. He just waved his hands around and over two rods protruding from a box of some sort; I thought it was magic!

Man Playing Thermin 046 

Now if you aren’t familiar with this strange instrument, I am sure you have heard it in films. Movies in which the Theremin played an important part include, “The Lost Weekend”; “Spellbound”; “The Spiral Staircase”; “The 10 Commandments”; and that great Sci-Fi film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” And the Golden Days of Radio used the Theremin, too. Shows like “The Green Hornet” would not have had its full suspense and excitement without it.

My first exposure to art were works by my brother, Edwin Byron. At the time I didn’t realize what a fine artist he was, but his paintings and drawings introduced me to a beautiful world. In my teen years, I discovered some of the great American artists like Winslow Homer, Reginald March, Peter Hurd, Georgia O’Keeffe, Doris Lee, and Thomas Hart Benton. As a young teenager, the image of Benton’s painting, “Persephone,” of the old farmer looking around the tree at the beautiful nude girl lying by the stream with her basket of flowers and clothes beside her has stayed with me. You just never forget a lovely painting like that. I have forgotten some of the masters, but not “Persephone.”

I don’t remember the first movie I saw. I am sure I wasn’t more than five or six. It may have been when Mom and Dad took us three kids to the movie on “grocery night” or “silver dollar night.” During those Depression years, the theatres gave money and groceries to lucky ticket holders. We did win sometimes; we had a fair chance with five ticket stubs!

Books have always been important. Our library contains about 2,500 volumes, and one of our favorite authors is Hendrik Willem van Loon. His books The Arts and Van Loon’s Lives are classics I treasure. The description on the front of the dust jacket of “Lives” states: “Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucious and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as our dinner guests in a bygone year.”

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The van Loon book was published in 1942, and the panel on the back cover is interesting:

In this book you will read a great deal about the
old and lovely city of Middelburg.
(Below that is a drawing of a bombed out city)
Today it looks like this. The Germans bombed it until not a
single house was left standing.

Some will remember Steve Allen’s amazingly successful PBS-TV series, “Meeting of the Minds.” The nation’s television critics voted Steve Allen’s scripts as BEST TV WRITING of 1976-77. There is no doubt that Steve got the idea from Van Loon’s “Lives.”

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Steve Allen 

In our library, I have the 1940 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, and it has my signature with a swirl beneath it, written in pencil, with the date: 10/30/40. You may remember that Ms. Grumplemeir, my penmanship teacher, once pointed out the swirl under my name to the class and told them, “Thurston will go far in whatever he chooses in life.” One of my favorite poems in the Oxford Book of verse is by Leigh Hunt (1784-1859).

Jenny Kiss’d Me 

Jenny kiss’d me when we met, 
Jumping from the chair she sat in; 
Time, you thief, who love to get 
Sweets into your list, put that in! 
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad, 
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me, 
Say I’m growing old, but add, 
Jenny kiss’d me. 

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Leigh Hunt 

In early 1987, I was visiting the Tennessee Arts Commission and we were talking about the lack of press and support that the “arts” receive in Tennessee. A lady looked at me and said, “You have published books, haven’t you? Maybe there’s something you can do to help us.”

So before long, I brought out the first edition, May 1987, of the widely acclaimed tabloid monthly, SPOTLIGHT ON THE ARTS. For six issues it was distributed throughout the state, but like most arts projects, we couldn’t get the advertising support it needed, and it folded.

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Ad in Spotlight on the Arts. 

Copies are in the Thurston Moore archives at the Nashville Public Library. Here’s comments from some of the letters we received:                                                                                          

“It is reflective of you, of your dedication to produce the best you know how for Tennessee.” – Alex Haley 

“The growing number of people who sustain our renaissance atmosphere could find no more comprehensive, literate or attractive compilation of information than SPOTLIGHT ON THE ARTS.” – Dane LaFontsee, Nashville City Ballet 

“Coverage of the arts in Tennessee is of great importance to all of us, and your publication does an excellent job in bringing attention to the multitude of cultural activities in our great state. - Warren K. Sumners, Tennessee Performing Arts left 

“You are making a fine contribution to the Arts in Tennessee…we will all benefit from your efforts.” – Constance Harrison, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra 

“Everyone at WPLN was so excited to see the beautiful Spotlight On the Arts. It was even better than expected. We have all been impressed with the very interesting articles.” – Brenda Loftis, WPLN-FM 

“On behalf of the State of Tennessee, it is a pleasure for me to have this opportunity to extend to you my best wishes for the Spotlight On the Arts. – Ned McWherter, Governor 

“Thank you for SPOTLIGHT ON THE ARTS. It is a most impressive publication and you should be proud and pleased with it.” – Estelle Linzer, Albert Schweitzer Fellowship 

“Our office has been so impressed with the quality and scope of Spotlight On the Arts. We cheer your vision and the important service to the Nashville community and to Nashville’s “aspiring,” as well as accomplished artists.” – Ophelia Paine, Metropolitan Historical Commission 

“Congratulations for putting the spotlight on the Arts.” – Billy Edd Wheeler, Playwright/Songwriter 

“Thanks to a much needed publication. I commend you for your efforts.” –George L. Mabry, Director Austin Peay State University’s leftfor the Creative Arts 

“The annual meeting of the U.S. Conference on Mayors will be held in Nashville with some 1,000 attending. May I request 1,000 copies of SPOTLIGHT ON THE ARTS as a Host City Gift during delegate registration? – Richard H. Fulton, Mayor 

“Spotlight On the Arts should fill a real need in the Arts community. You have successfully pioneered a number of projects and publications and I’m sure you will do well on this one.” - Jo Walker-Meadow, Country Music Association. 

SPOTLIGHT ON THE ARTS gave me my introduction to noted Nashville sculptor, Alan LeQuire. I interviewed him three years before the unveiling of his famous sculpture, Athena Parthenos, the Greek goddess of wisdom and patron of the arts of peace, in Nashville’s Parthenon. Athena is the tallest indoor sculpture in the western world.

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Alan LeQuire in his studio. 

In 1982, Alan LeQuire competed and won the commission to recreate for the Parthenon in Nashville the lost Athena Parthenos by fifth-century Greek sculptor, Pheidias. Over the eight years it took to complete, the Athena project became the most difficult, challenging, and rewarding commission any figurative sculptor could hope for – and hope to survive. This work required LeQuire to expand his knowledge of materials and sculpting techniques, and to greatly broaden and deepen his knowledge of classical mythology. The unveiling of Athena Parthenos in 1990 made LeQuire a celebrity and figure of controversy throughout Tennessee, and it attracted favorable notice from classical scholars, archaeologists, and art critics nationwide.

In 2003, Alan LeQuire’s Musica, a bronze statue, reportedly the largest sculpture group in the United States, was unveiled at the Music Row Roundabout in Nashville. Musica features nine nude figures dancing in a circular composition approximately 38 feet tall.

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Alan LeQuire’s “Musica.” 

LeQuire writes of his work:

"Dance is the physical expression of music, and the piece is intended to convey that feeling to the viewer in a composition which is simple, exuberant and celebratory. The theme of the sculpture is music, because of the historical and economic significance of the site. This is the heart of Music Row, the area and the artistic activity for which Nashville is best known. The theme is music, but the sculpture represents artistic creativity itself. An artistic idea often seems to miraculously and spontaneously burst forth. This is what happens in the sculpture, and the title Musica suggests this since it refers to all the 'arts of the muses.'"

I had an excellent staff on my paper. My Assistant Editor was Nick Fabian, 23 years old, son of Jane Fabian, one of the founders of The Nashville Ballet. He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1986, traveled three times to Europe, and knew all the right people in society and the arts in Middle Tennessee. He asked for no pay, said he wanted the experience. He said, “I’m having fun!”

I remember one time Nick and I went backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. I gave a copy of Spotlight to Roy Acuff with the feature we did on him. Later, I walked by his dressing room and looked in, and he was sitting there reading the paper! He wished me success and said, “You’ve always done well with your publications – you’ll do a few issues and sell it for a million!” I asked him if that was an offer, and he smiled.

My Senior Writer, Lydia Wiggins, is still a close friend. She and Georgianna were very close, and one of Georgianna’s children’s stories is dedicated to Lydia, whose full-time job was teaching at Tennessee State University.

Tracy and her new friend, Mark Rose, worked for me, distributing the “free” papers, selling ads, making “barter” deals when advertisers couldn’t pay! They went to Memphis for our issue No. 2: Ramesses the Great Exhibit at the Memphis Convention left.

Ramesses 046 

In October 1987, the annual INDIAN POW-WOW was held in Mt. Juliet, near Nashville, with more than 60 tribes attending. Georgianna and I were there, and Iron Eyes Cody was Honorary Chairman. Remember him as the Indian with the “tear” in his eye on those wonderful TV commercials? He made more than 200 Western films.

I visited with Iron Eyes and gave him a copy of the SPOTLIGHT, which had his photo on the cover, and he signed a copy for me. Georgianna danced with the Indians in the arena; she’s the greatest!

Don’t Miss the Next Chapter: Evening of Entertainment

An Autobiography: Chapter 45, President Kennedy’s Assassination

“C & W Wax Museum Set for Nashville”

That was a headline in the July 16, 1969, issue of Cash Box, a leading trade paper for the Country Music industry. The two column article had a photo of me: “Aurora Publishing, Inc., newly formed Nashville corporation, announced it will establish the nation’s first Country Music Wax Museum here.

“Displaying full life-size figures honoring the stars of the past and present in the country music world, the Museum will represent an investment of ‘several hundred thousand dollars.’… The idea for the Country Music Wax Museum was presented to Aurora by Thurston Moore, who originated The Country Music Who’s Who, which he sold recently to Record World. He is retained as Editor-in-Chief of the annual. … Roupen S. Gulbenk, President of Aurora, said, ‘Mr. Moore will be a consultant and advisor to Aurora in the Wax Museum project.’”

Wax Museum Brochure 045 

I had always had great interest in wax museums and visited several of them in the United States, including the celebrated Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and the magnificent Movieland Wax Museum and Palace of Living Art Museum in Buena Park, California.

I was acquainted with Kenneth R. Bunn, a sculptor in Colorado, and we gave him the contract for producing the figures. He made several trips to Nashville, and my extensive file of photos of the country stars were invaluable to the project.

The museum opened across the street from the Grand Ole Opry House. This gave the Opry-goers the opportunity to visit the museum before and after the Opry show. There were more than 60 artists featured in the museum, so it really was a “Who’s Who” of country music.

The glassed-in sets were kept at 72 degrees to provide maximum protection for the figures. Clothing and musical instruments were given by the stars themselves, or by their heirs. I remember Johnnie Wright, husband of Kitty Wells, calling me in Denver and asking if I would take care of the outfits for him and his partner, Jack Anglin, for their wax figures. He knew there was a leading western wear shop in Denver. He sent me their sizes, and Georgianna and I had fun picking out their suits, shirts, boots, etc.

The museum later moved to Music Row and was owned by my very close friend, Daniel Hsu; it was very successful for many years. Eventually the attractions disappeared on Music Row, including the Wax Museum, Barbara Mandrell Country, and the Willie Nelson General Store.

In 1970, I saw an ad in Antique Trader for more than 50,000 movie stills, lobby cards, 8 x 10s, etc., owned by Barkley’s Museum in Taylor, Missouri. That gave me the idea of creating a Movie Museum featuring this material and wax figures. I discussed my ideas with my friend Rock Gunter, who lived on Lookout Mountain, overlooking Denver. His fantastic home was just a short distance from the grave and museum of William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill.

I knew Rock when he was a performer and disc jockey at WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. In 1950, he had a No. 1 song on the charts: “Birmingham Bounce.” WWVA was third in sales of my Country Music Scrapbooks in the 1950s and ’60s, and Rock was one of the hundreds of DJs who hawked the books on their nightly program. The station was also the home of the WWVA Jamboree, one of the largest country Saturday night shows in the nation.

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Rock Gunter in his studio. 

Rock became a successful insurance executive and was intrigued with my plans and asked if he could be a partner. We shook hands, and I went to Missouri and bought the movie collection!

Then what do we do with it? Someone suggested Estes Park, Colorado, the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park, about 65 miles from Denver. After a couple of trips, we bought an old two-story building that housed a laundromat, and we turned it into the beautiful and impressive MOVIE WAX MUSEUM, with wax figures and movie memorabilia.

Movie Wax Brochure 045 

We had it for several years, and our son, Marc Byron, managed it. One summer, my friend Ray Rowland’s son, who was also named Mark (but spelled with a k), and his girlfriend, managed the museum. Sadly, in 1983, Mark was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Marc Byron studied the wax figures, and before long he became a fine wax sculptor. His figures of John Wayne and W.C. Fields are among the best. Many weekends Georgianna and I took over and enjoyed our time there. We eventually sold it; the remaining movie memorabilia, lobby cards, posters, etc, I sold for $15,000 to a young man in Texas. That collection today would bring several times that.

John McClure II, who lived in Denver, was a good friend and a very talented artist. He suggested that he create some dioramas for the museum, and I thought those would be something different, the likes of which I had never seen in other wax museums. The first one he did was an exact replica of a 1913 Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company silent movie set. This is a great work of art, and it is set into the wall in our living room. It is approximately 30 inches by 50 inches and 24 inches deep.

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John McClure’s diorama of the 1913 movie set. 

John created a very interesting diorama depicting the infamous John Dillinger, the famous bank robber, who was shot and killed in front of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, July 22, 1934. The movie he went to see with his girl – “the lady in red” - was “Manhattan Melodrama” starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

We became friends with Ward Crowley, who owned the motel where we stayed on weekends, and he had a rare $25,000 collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia. We made a display of his collection in the museum, and when John saw it, it gave him the idea of creating a diorama of Dealey Plaza where Kennedy was shot. I gave John $5,000 and commissioned him to create the diorama.

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John McClure working on his diorama of Dealey Plaza. 

Far from being an example of cute craftsmanship, the facsimile model is based on actual photographs and a film of the assassination, plus 400 snapshots of the plaza taken during two visits to Dallas by the McClure family, during which John “crawled around Dealey Plaza with a hundred-foot tape measure,” noting distances and angles and measuring the lane stripes on Elm Street.

He talked with key eyewitnesses, including an Associated Press photographer present during the assassination, and newspaper editor Penn Jones, Jr., who advised him not to become involved lest he became “hung-up” on the assassination for the rest of his life. Fortunately for students of the Presidential killing, John McClure ignored Jones’ sage advice. The result was an exacting model of breathtaking accuracy, which gives much needed perspectives on the assassination site.

The more he worked on the diorama, the more John got caught up in the shooting, and when it was completed, he believed that with his diorama he could prove that the Kennedy shooting was part of a conspiracy. He contacted the CIA in Washington, D.C., and they sent two agents to Denver to see the diorama and talk to John. I was there during that visit; I wish I had taken a recorder! The CIA agents were reserved, of course, and didn’t want to say much, but they were completely captivated by John’s explanation and demonstrations. They were there for almost two hours, and I wish I could remember what really transpired.

That was the only model in the world, in minute detail, showing the exact moment when President Kennedy was shot. Over 300 figures in the diorama are people who were actually there, all identified from photographs. John spent more than 1,200 hours making this historical diorama. The scale is 1/8´´ to a foot, and the model measures a full six feet square. John made a major contribution to the study of the assassination – by adding the third graphic dimension - depth.

In 1975, a book was published in Australia entitled PROOF OF CONSPIRACY In the Assassination of President Kennedy, written by Ian MacFarlane; it was printed in Hong Kong. In that book is John’s story of the diorama and a large photo of him looking into the diorama.

In a letter dated March 18, 1975, John wrote Ian: “I entered on the project quite naively and came out convinced of a conspiracy. Despite the multitude of photographs and movies taken in Dealey Plaza, in the minutes before and after the assassination of President Kennedy – some of which strangely “disappeared” forever into the files of the FBI and other agencies – it is often difficult to get an overall picture of what happened, and where. Photographs are two-dimensional and, depending on the type of lens used, distances and objects can be compressed or otherwise distorted.”

I had the model in Nashville, and Daniel Hsu was going to make a room for it at his Music Row Mall. It was stored there for a while, and mysteriously it was destroyed. You figure that out!

Aubrey Mayhew, a friend from my country music days, was a JFK collector, and it was he who bought the Texas School Book Depository at auction in 1970. Georgianna and I had a trade show in Dallas, at a time when the building was vacant. While there, I went to see the city manager; I knew he had met John when he was in Dallas, and I knew the building was kept locked, but I asked him if I could possibly get into the building and go to the floor where Oswald committed the crime of the century.

He took me to the building, and we went to the sixth floor on an old rickety freight elevator. We walked a short distance in the half dark before he pointed to a window and said, “That’s where Oswald knelt and fired the gun.”

I cannot tell of my feelings at that moment when I knelt at that window and looked out on Dealey Plaza, reliving that fateful day of November 22, 1963.

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Don’t Miss the Next Chapter: Spotlight On the Arts