John Wayne museum gives visitors a glimpse of his Iowa birthplace
September 27, 2016
"Tomorrow is the most important thing in life." ~ John Wayne
Born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907, the tall boy from Winterset, Iowa, eventually became one of the most famous people in the world. As a young man, the trail he envisioned out of a hardscrabble life included a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he could earn a law degree. But life had its own plans for "Duke" Morrison, and a body surfing injury derailed his athletic scholarship and placed him in the saddle for a ride he never expected.
"Another dream was to be a naval officer, but he didn't get the appointment to Annapolis," said Brian Downes, executive director of the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum in Winterset, Iowa. "But he certainly was going to be a professional of some sort."
With a tireless work ethic, "Duke" secured work as a prop boy at nearby Fox Film studios, moving furniture, material, and equipment around for filmmakers. His physical size was an asset, but it was how he moved at work that attracted attention from the right people.
“I don’t know that he preferred to (make westerns), as much as that was his niche. It is what the public liked. ... As a professional actor and entertainer, you have to please the public, and that is what the public wanted. Brian Downes, executive director of the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum in Winterset, Iowa
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"He was noticed," Downes said. "The people that needed to notice him kind of liked the way he moved without even hearing him speak. They thought for a man that large, he had incredible grace."
His first big break came when he was cast in "The Big Trail" (1930), and his name was changed by Hollywood executives to John Wayne. For numerous reasons, "The Big Trail" was a box office disappointment, but the stage was set for Wayne's movie career.
"He liked life. And he liked making movies." ~ Ron Howard
From 1930-1938, Wayne honed his craft and cowboy personae by starring in what is estimated to be seventy "B-movies." Those roles led to teaming up with directing legend John Ford in "Stagecoach" (1939), which was a critical and box office success. Wayne's star burned bright from that point forward.
Nailing down the total count of Wayne films is a daunting task but, according to Downes, the hard working actor appeared in 159 starring or leading man roles. The figure is a record for a Hollywood actor that remains unmatched. Eighty-three of those roles were westerns, which cemented his legacy as the archetypal American cowboy.
"I don't know that he preferred to (make westerns), as much as that was his niche," Downes said. "It is what the public liked. He absolutely loved 'True Grit,' because that won him an Oscar, but he loved doing the other parts, too. As a professional actor and entertainer, you have to please the public, and that is what the public wanted. We kind of discussed the movies, his favorites and what he enjoyed. He said he just loved 'She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,' because it was such a great stretch for him to play a man so much older than himself. 'Yellow Ribbon' (1949) and 'Red River' (1948) were really just months apart, and he is the mature leader of men in those roles, and he was a young man at the time."
Despite his Hollywood success, multiple poor business investments left Wayne financially strapped in the latter part of his career. In a kind of poetic symmetry, it was the cowboy way of life that put him back on firmer economic ground.
"A man's got to have a code, a creed to live by." ~ John Wayne
Starting in the late 1950's, Wayne invested in cattle ranching and cotton farming in Arizona, becoming partners and lifelong friends with Louis Johnson, whose management of the cotton fields and 85,000 head feedlot brought Wayne a needed measure of financial stability.
"He was just about broke at that time," Downes said about Wayne. "He became a cattle and cotton rancher in Arizona just by chance and it fit very well into his lifestyle that he enjoyed anyway. He liked the western locales, he liked the notion of cattle, and he liked (their Hereford bull) cattle auction every year at Thanksgiving. And on a handshake, Louis Johnson put him back on firm financial footing. At the end of his life, his interest in the ranch… was the biggest percentage of his wealth at the time of his death."
"I'm the stuff men are made of." ~ John Wayne
From his first big break in 1930's "The Big Trail" to his last role in 1976's "The Shootist," Wayne left a large legacy of beloved films and memorabilia. The new $2.5 million John Wayne Birthplace and Museum in Winterset, Iowa, opened its doors in May 2015, and plans are already in place for an expansion.
"I think it is easy to make the case, not out of sentiment but by real numbers, he was the most popular movie star who ever lived," Downes said in a comment that describes why a John Wayne museum exists. "We are meeting (soon) with an architect to start planning for phase two. This will be a million-dollar expansion (and) we think in three years it can be finished."
"Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway." ~ John Wayne
Another legacy the actor left is the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, which his family created to honor his memory and his personal fights against lung cancer, which he overcame, and the stomach cancer that took his life on June 11, 1979. It seems his heroic movie roles, along with his heroic battles against cancer, inspired people throughout the world; both then, as well as now.
"To the people of the world, John Wayne is not just an actor and a very fine actor, John Wayne is the United States of America. He is what they believe it to be. He is what they hope it will be. And he is what they hope it will always be." ~ Actress and longtime friend, Maureen O'Hara, speaking before a United States senate subcommittee on May 21, 1979. F