A bit of the Woodstock stage, Dorothy's slippers and Prince's guitar

PERMANENT EXHIBIT: The National Museum of American History is preparing its first-ever permanent exhibit on the history of entertainment. It will include a pair of heavyweight champ Joe Louis' boxing gloves, rock star Prince's yellow guitar, and droids from the "Star Wars" movies. Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A 50-year-old piece of plywood stained with traces of psychedelic painting was installed this month in an exhibit on the third floor of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

It is a simple artifact - about 4 feet by 8 - but one that's sacred to the story of rock-and-roll.

It was part of the stage at the Woodstock music festival, where in 1969 the titans of rock cavorted before nearly half a million people and marked a milestone for a generation and the 20th century.

And it is one part of the sweeping new exhibit on the history of entertainment that includes Prince's "Yellow Cloud" guitar, Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The "Wizard of Oz," and Jim Henson's original Kermit the Frog puppet, which had ping pong balls for eyes.

"Entertainment Nation," which opens Dec. 9, uses music, movies, sports, television and theater to illuminate crucial chapters in the American story, the museum said.

The project, which has been 10 years in the making, is part of a new culture wing at the museum, which will include a gallery of rotating exhibits, first featuring the pictures of fashion photographer Richard Avedon.

"This will be the Smithsonian's first-ever permanent installation on the nation's entertainment history," said museum spokeswoman Melinda Machado.

Some of the items have been in other exhibits. But "Entertainment Nation" includes numerous artifacts that have never been displayed before, and many that have not been on view in years, Machado said.

The exhibit covers the period from the mid-1800s to the present, focusing on "questions of the day that entertainers, athletes, television, theater, film, sports and music were engaging in through their art," said John Troutman, museum curator of music and musical instruments.

"So all the objects that are on display ... serve as conduits for important national conversations," he said. "This is a history of why entertainment has mattered in the history of the United States."

Anthea M. Hartig, the museum's director since 2019, said: "I inherited this baby, and it's been a joy to help it come into the world."

Pieces of American history

During a recent visit, workers were still bustling around, lighting was being "tuned," and some exhibits were draped in protective covers. "This is a construction site," Troutman said.

But the crimson gown and white bonnet worn by actress Elizabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale" were in place, as well as the shiny "Star Wars" droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, and the black mask worn by "The Lone Ranger" in the 1950s TV show.

So were heavyweight champ Joe Louis' boxing gloves from his first match with Max Schmeling in 1936, jazz great John Coltrane's saxophone, and the black guitar Paul Simon played at his concert in New York's Central Park in 1991.

Nearby was a record of jazz singer Billie Holiday's version of the anti-lynching song, "Strange Fruit."

"It's critical to enshrine the story of that song, and the reaction that it provoked," said music curator Krystal Klingenberg. "That's a song ... that clearly speaks to a particular political moment."

In the same case were band leader John Philip Sousa's baton, and the modified tap shoes worn by Althea Thomas, the organist at Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1950s. Thomas' shoes have never been displayed before.

The Smithsonian's "ruby slippers" - one of several pairs used in the 1939 movie - have felt soles designed to muffle sound during the dance scenes in "The Wizard of Oz," said Laura Duff, a museum spokeswoman.

Prince's yellow guitar, which he donated in 1993, is going on display for the first time in several years. A high-tech examination of the instrument revealed that it had seven different layers of paint on its surface, Troutman said.

It is believed to be the late rock star's first custom-made guitar, he said, and is the one, then painted white, that Prince used in his film "Purple Rain."

Setting the stage

Another famous guitar on display is the 1968 Fender Stratocaster Jimi Hendrix used to play a psychedelic version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" - with a brief interlude of "Taps" - on the last day at Woodstock.

The guitar was loaned by Seattle's MoPOP museum of pop culture. (It will go back to Seattle in February.)

"When we were conceiving of this project, we figured, well, if there's any time to get Hendrix's Woodstock guitar over to the Smithsonian, even for temporary placement ... this is it," Troutman said. The guitar arrived Nov. 14.

It hangs near the plywood from the stage where Hendrix stood along with Janis Joplin, the Who, Santana, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, dairy farmer Max Yasgur who owned the Woodstock land, and a cavalcade of superstars in August 1969.

The wood, newly protected by an acrylic coating, has been installed so that visitors can walk on it. "We determined that it would be really fun to step onto that wood rather than have it in a glass case," Troutman said.

And a three-sided, floor-to-ceiling video of Hendrix playing will be available in the exhibit room. "So ... our visitors can stand on the stage, looking at Hendrix's guitar, while they see him performing the national anthem at Woodstock," Troutman said.

After the concert ended, the stage was dismantled, and pieces of it were sold and put to use by local residents.

Several years ago Troutman heard that much of it had recently been discovered and salvaged by a former local resident, Steve Gold, at an abandoned paddle ball court in woods near the site.

Gold, of New City, N.Y., said in a telephone interview that he had grown up near the festival site, attended the events, and had seen Hendrix's performance.

Troutman thought it would be fascinating to include a stage piece in the new exhibit. And Gold, 69, a Woodstock aficionado and entrepreneur, agreed to donate four sheets of the wood to the museum, Troutman said. (They will be rotated in the exhibit.).

"We don't know what part of the stage" they're from, he said. "But the piece that we're installing first ... has retained traces of the paint that was painted on top of the stage that the artists were standing on." The rest of stage was not painted like that, he said.

"If you look at archival photographs ... you'll see parts of the stage covered in purple and blue paint and specific designs," he said. "That paint exists on the plywood that we're installing for the opening."

And it appears to be near where the musicians stood - or sat, in the case of the Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

Woodstock was a moment at the end of the 1960s when an event "became legendary as it was happening ... [and] took on epic proportions in terms of the memory of that era," Troutman said.

"It's also lingered for a long time in the memories of those who attended," he said.

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