Brian Downes, executive director of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, spent most of his professional career as a writer for the Chicago Tribune—reporting on Western travel in particular. After producing Buffalo Bill-style Wild West shows in the Midwest, he was hired by the John Wayne Birthplace Museum to lead the efforts for a new building. Some seven years later, the dream has been realized with a grand opening of the only museum in the world dedicated Wayne set for May 23. Editor Bob Welch caught up with Downes in Winterset, Iowa, to get the details.
Not only are you the executive director for the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, you had a chance to get to know The Duke, right? Tell us about that.
I worked for 35 years as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I had loved The Duke since I was a little kid. I think I first saw him on the big screen in 1959 in The Horse Soldiers. At the paper, in 1977, I took a notion to write him a letter on Tribune letterhead requesting an interview. About six weeks later I got a reply that said, “Yes, come on out.” I wound up spending the entire day with him.
Did you develop a long-lasting relationship with him?
I won’t stretch it by saying we were friends, but he’d always take my phone calls. About half a dozen people asked for his autograph through me, and he always did them—Marty Stuart was one of them (Stuart is the headlining act for the museum’s grand opening). Duke might have been exasperated, but he complied with everything I asked of him. At the same time, I guess I was something of a mouthpiece for him at the Chicago Tribune. He wrote an essay on the Panama Canal Treaty in 1978 that we published. In our collection, we have a day planner and address book from that period of his life. I was so surprised to see my name in there.
When you were hired by the Museum, was your charge to create a new Building?
They were very clear: raise funds, raise funds, and increase our profile. I landed here in 2008, the same year the Great Recession did, and it was very painful. We’ve worked with the board, local banks, the city, county, and state. But in the end, I think this $2.5 million project project has been solidly two-thirds supported by the fans. It’s been incredible. Very humbling, really.
Moving from Chicago to Winterset, Iowa, must have been a culture shock. What’s your impression of the area?
What struck me years ago when I pulled up to the town square at midnight, was that it looked like a movie set, but it was authentic. The best part about the square—which is only a block from our museum—is it looks identical to how it looked when the Morrison family (John Wayne’s family) lived here, the same buildings. Even the 1876 courthouse—it was standing when Custer and Wild Bill Hickock were still alive. It’s just an all-American feeling here. It’s so patriotic and so different from where I came from. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
Now that the museum is a reality, what will visitors experience?
Out front is our most prominent bronze, the 7 ½-foot-tall statue that was donated by the Wayne family to our county and city on the occasion of his 100th birthday. That’s our anchor and showpiece that any passerby can see day or night. Next, you’re going to see a magnificent building. We tried to pick up on the architecture in our community. The museum blends in with the community and I think it’s going to stand the test of time aesthetically. On the inside, the museum will be divided into three sections: John Wayne the American, John Wayne the family man, and John Wayne the actor, with the actor section being most prominent. We also have a 24-seat movie theater with seats from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
What sort of artifacts were you able to gather?
In the main gallery is John Wayne’s 1972 Pontiac station wagon. It looks like a hearse. He had the roof raised 6 inches to accommodate his size. This was in the days before SUVs, so he was concerned with comfort, not pretense. We have six panels—set decorations—from the movie The Shootist—where John Wayne filmed his very last scenes of his very last movie. They’re 11 feet tall and quite decorative. Visitors feel like they’re standing on set. Academy Award-winning set designer Robert Doyle donated those shortly before his death. We have loads of costume pieces and movie wardrobes. A hat from Rio Bravo, a jacket from True Grit, cavalry pieces from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, bronzes, original artwork, and more.
As you’ve gone through this process, I’m sure you’ve gained an appreciation of what The Duke means to his fans. Can you describe it?
I think I know the fans really well because I correspond with so many of them. I think we see ourselves in him. In my dealings with him, the first couple of minutes were quite intimidating. Unbelievably quickly, though, he became a real, ordinary fellow. He was curious, polite, stubborn, and opinionated. He was genuinely interested in people. For a lot of people he’s a father figure. Father is the key word—speaking for myself.
It’s not my quote, I wish it was, but somewhere somebody said that John Wayne defies the laws of optics, the further away he is the larger he becomes.