There's not a "Quiet, please," or a "Please Do Not Touch" sign in the place.
On a typical day, kids are screaming down an 85-foot sticky slide; 150 chicks are pecking their ways out of their shells; 1,000 balls are clackety-crack-crashing their way to the bottom of a box; croakers, bats, and electric eels are sounding off; a King Kong-sized turkey is gabble-gobbling; a jet engine is firing off, shaking the buildings and composure of anyone around; and a chopper, fanning the breeze, is landing on the parking lot outside.
You might hear the Young Saints or Rita Moss raising the roof from one corner of the building; see Rosemary de Camp or Elke Sommer or Vikki Carr or Nanette Fabray or Mike Garrett or Wanda Hendrix "doing their thing"; listen to sitars or mariachis; or watch a repertory theater doing a modernized Grimm's fairy tales.
And over it all, thump, thump-thump, thump, is the giant sound of a heartbeat - a sound as old as life and as modern as today.
What is it? A museum! An unfusty, undusty, wacky, "with-it" museum, the California Museum of Science and Industry, often tagged "The World's Most Motivating Museum," and run on the principle, "Aristotle with a touch of Barnum."
Tradition-shattering, attendance-shattering (more than 50,000 more visitors every month than the year before), this lively "Push-button University" has the motto, "Tradition was Yesterday," a board of 36 bright young brainstormers headed by J. Howard Edgerton and Don M. Muchmore, with a wacky pair of offbeats, director William J. McCann and P.R. man H.R. (Bud) Hopps, Jr., running the kaleidoscopic shebang.
Located in Exposition Park, in the shadow of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the vista of a rather lovely rose garden, the museum - as not-so-oldtimers will recall - once had little more to offer than dust-musty jars of canned tangerines and pomegranate jellies, and glass-covered ears of corn and pods of cotton.
The jars are now in the basement ("We are hoping the agricultural industry, the No. 1 industry in the state, will pick up and do something exciting for us," says Norman Bilderback, director of exhibits).
Upstairs, kids, students, parents, and gawkers to the tune of 2.3 million last year roam at will through modern exhibits designed by such masters as Charles Eames, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, Don Worland, and Herbert Rosenthal. They punch buttons to play a game of tic-tac-toe with a win-kick monster, or fire a jet engine, or demonstrate airflow over a wing with golddust in mineral oil, or get their hands hot to demonstrate re-entry heat, or push a toy train around a moebius band (continuous, one edge, one surface), or hear a lecture on LSD and marijuana or make a balloon rise.
They can take tests (the machine lights up red when the answer is wrong - says "See Exhibit 5"); watch man's attempts to build perpetual motion machines; teach themselves how to be auto mechanics with a stripped-down engine for a teacher; trace man's reaction to a hot button by watching the "Neuroman"; learn about electricity from Benjamin Franklin's kite to intricate coils and magnets; study aviation from the Chinese fire arrow to the jet.
At any given time, some of the buttons won't work. "They're just touched too much," explains Hopps. "We have just one and a half repairmen for the whole joint; we got cut 27 bodies from our staff when the attendance was half what it is today. Downtime is inevitable."
Exhibits change constantly - and each new one is accompanied by a "happening" to kick it off. The Peace Corps display brought Jack Vaughn, director of the Peace Corps, from Washington. The George Washington Carver exhibit had a party for Tuskegee alumni hosted by the Docents; Candy Bergen will hand out awards for Photography West; Mike Garrett will do the honors for the TIMA exhibit in March; Wanda Hendrix and Elke Sommer will glamorize the Art Unexpected show; Eddie Albert and Mudcat Grant kicked off the Civil Defense show; Rita Moss will do the same for "The Hand of Man."
And Slim Pickens brought his collection of antique spurs to the Vanishing West exhibit.
Other exhibits scheduled this year are Exploring Space, United Crusade, People and Places, Bonsai and Ikebana, Design West '69, Science Fair, Youth Behind the Lens, and shows of Costa Rica, Mexico Today, Polish tapestries, folk art and sculpture, and African Art.
They're collecting a Dusenburg, Stutz Bearcat and a '35 Cord for a Classic Cars exhibit ("We get buffs of all kinds in here; they come back to look at the whole joint," says McCann).
HALL OF HEALTH
They're working on plans for a two-story addition to the Hall of Health (to beam on public health problems); a 500-seat auditorium (designed by Kent Attridge); and audio-visual demonstration of planes being brought into Palmdale airport by the FAA; and a real working nuclear reactor, which will have upper-story classrooms where high school and junior college students can conduct experiments.
"We relate directly to school curriculums," says McCann. And every school day, students tromp through the halls on their way to study classes in one of the exhibits.
They're not hard-nosed about anything. Although the museum is officially open from 10 until 5 daily throughout the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving, they will open any evening on request of a group - cater banquets and dinner meetings, and have hired Dr. Philip Peck of Cleveland for evening and weekend lectures "On Becoming a Woman," which will cover menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy.
Little things don't bother Hopps and McCann. Whether the sound is laughter of kids hurtling over animal-sized toys, or watching wild-color rabbits (bred in reds, yellows, and weird hues) or playing with lambs and baby goats, or a mariachi band, they take it in stride.
As they do the sparrows, who arrived three years ago and refuse to leave. "No one has been 'bombed on' yet," chuckles Bud Hopps. "And they do make it lively around here."
That this collection of wonders can survive on a sparse budget is a tribute to the dedication of Edgerton and his work-or-be-fired board, and the equally dedicated Muses and Docents who plan symposiums, award programs, and events.
In the 16 years since they organized, they turned the dusty "cow-place-without-the-smell" into a with-today spot by browbeating and badgering big companies (IBM, Southern Counties and Southern California Gas, Southern California Edison, Santa Fe Railroad, Pacific Telephone, and General Motors) to finance permanent exhibits.
They ran the place with business principles. "Executives want to see things in a hurry and go back with the knowledge. If it works for executives, it works for kids," explains Muchmore.
And they were ruthless with volunteers, using a no-workee, no-tickee approach. "To heck with the size of the name," says Edgerton. "If they don't work, we chop the name off." Not long ago a whole deb group was summarily fired. "We want only activists," says Muchmore.
Muchmore has been connected with the museum since 1956, when he took over as director. "They must have bought carloads of sickly green and dirty brown paint," he winces. "First thing I did was ask for another color - and paint."
The second thing he did was resolve to make it "so groovy kids would camp on the doorstep."
"The place should be a walk-through encyclopedia. Today you have to smite sophisticated kids with sophisticated ideas."
By the time he left in 1962 to become vice chancellor of the state colleges, he had the beginning of today's go-go board. Now he's back as president, with the hard-driving Edgerton as chairman, a man who is so gung-ho about his job he helicopters on five minutes' notice to OK a new idea or think up a newer one.
The result: The public gets a fine free museum for 25 cents in taxes on every dollar (the rest contributed by industry, board members, and a passionate group of volunteers).
"Names are not gold," says Edgerton. "Work is."
Project next: Somebody remembered that buried under weeds not far away is a bandshell used as a toolshed since World War II.
"Would you believe summer concerts?" says Muchmore.