Last month Olvera Street got a new cultural attraction, the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. IAMLA occupies the historic Italian Hall, a 1908 community center that has been restored.
Despite tourist perceptions, Los Angeles has far more Italian Americans than San Francisco, or anywhere West of Chicago. Early in the 20th-century, Italian was frequently heard in the city’s first suburb, Highland Park. IAMLA covers both the national and the L.A. experience. It foregrounds people you might not think of as Italian-American: Simon Rodia, Frank Zappa, hot tub inventor Candido Jacuzzi, Lady Gaga.
The inaugural display is heavy on text panels and touchscreens. Original artifacts tend to be small, though many have great stories attached. A restaurant napkin reminds us of an epoch when L.A. foodies knew what a “Steak Sinatra” was.
There is just one notable work of art, a Rico Lebrun drawing. Flood Figures (1960) was made as a study for the artist’s Pomona College mural. Lebrun invoked Old Testament calamities to address the horrors of the Holocaust and the atomic future.
So yes, there’s Hollywood, quite a bit of it. It ranges from Rudolph Valentino to Frank Capra to Francis Ford Coppola. An amusing publicity still shows the Little Rascals with Peter Mole, who also falls into the “didn’t know he was Italian” category. Sicilian-born Pietro Mole was an engineering genius at General Electric who MGM lured west. Mole pioneered modern film lighting, and his company, Mole Richardson, remains an industry player.
The Rascals’ dog Petey, with the ring around the eye, was the creation of Italian-American animal trainer Antonio Campanaro. In a perfect world, Target would pay Campanaro royalties.
IAMLA has space reserved for future temporary shows and educational programs. It has a website and an especially strong presence on the Google Cultural Institute. The Google version of IAMLA is more comprehensive than the physical museum is—in fact, you can access the material on the museum’s touchscreens. Larger museums recognize that their online presences draw substantial audiences around the globe, most of whom may never enter their door—and that’s okay. IAMLA is one of the first small museums to realize this.
One thing you don’t get from the web is the experience of the Italian Hall itself. The visitor exits not through a giftshop but through a speakeasy door, with slot for giving a password. It was uncovered during restoration.
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