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‘Star Wars’ Stormtroopers by the lake? Think hard on Lucas museum plan

MOVIES

MOVIES

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Updated: June 23, 2014 3:26PM



Have you been to the Flash Gordon Museum yet? Right next to the Adler Planetarium? Lots of fun. There’s a mock-up of Ming the Merciless’ throne room on the planet Mongo, and you can reach out and touch the fearsome Sea Beast ...

OK, OK, there is no Flash Gordon Museum next to the Adler, and a good thing too.

If you are unfamiliar with Flash, he was very big in the 1930s, first as a newspaper cartoon, then as a movie, then a movie serial, which kids in the 1950s and 1960s saw endlessly rerun on television.

I bring up Flash as a reminder that fame fades, even huge fame, even “Star Wars”-level fame. It bathes its creator George Lucas in a golden glow now but will not last forever. Watching the city bend over backward to put his proposed museum on the Chicago lakefront, I hate to be a spoilsport, but I have to ask: Do we want this museum?

What’s going to be inside? The museum’s website — still is clunkily wooing San Francisco, a move rejected by those in charge of the waterfront park where Lucas first wanted to put it — describes it this way:

“The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum will be a center highlighting populist art from some of the great illustrators of the last 150 years through today’s digital art used to create animated and live-action movies, visual effects, props and sketches,” alongside paintings from Norman Rockwell — Lucas owns 57 — plus other classic illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker.

All good. So it’s not just going to be Mel’s Drive-in from “American Graffiti” and Indiana Jones’ fedora from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Your average tourist in 2024 won’t care much about those.

I should confess here. I’m the rare moviegoer who liked “THX 1138,” Lucas’ first movie, a jarring sci-fi film with Robert Duvall, far more than “Star Wars.”

I can remember seeing the first “Star Wars” debut in the summer of 1977, as a 17-year-old, worldly as a kitten. I walked out of the theater, disappointed and puzzled. Here you have a movie that is basically a two-hour running gun battle at close range between minions of the evil Galactic Empire and these four rebels, one of whom is 7 feet tall, and the ooh-scary stormtroopers can’t so much as graze the wookiee’s ear? Weak.

It was downhill from there, and by the time the Empire was overthrown by teddy-bear escapees from a toilet paper TV commercial, the charm was lost on me.

To give Lucas the benefit of the doubt, I assume he’s savvy enough that his museum will take its “cultural arts” name seriously and not just be a showcase for his dusty mementos, though I note that “warehouse” is part of its description. Between the gravitas of the Art Institute and the edginess of the Museum of Contemporary Art, there is room for a museum that showcases the more popular aspects of culture: not just movies, but advertising, illustration, fashion.

Still, someone should ask: Are tourists, for whom “Star Wars” carries the emotional heft of “Buck Rogers” — another big science-fiction movie series of yesteryear — going to line up for a museum dedicated to Arrow shirt ads and magazine covers, and the magic behind movies they’ve never seen?

For the record, a Lucas museum could be a great idea, something that graces our lakefront and gives the nearly 50 million tourists who visit Chicago another place to go.

Or maybe not. Private museums can be bland money-making tourist traps, as anyone who has gone to, oh, the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., knows. If all the Lucas museum is going to offer visitors is a chance to pay $24 to see R2-D2 and C-3PO’s actual costumes and then be shunted into the biggest gift shop of all time, is that really what the city of Chicago should support? It’s not as if Lucas were putting his $300 million behind the DuSable Museum and relocating it to the lakefront. Given the educational and civic roles of the Adler, the Field and the Shedd, we need to look closely and ask what exactly Lucas is offering, who will control it, and do we really want it, not only now, but in the future?

Museums as entertainment have a way of getting dated, fast. Look at the scrap of Disneyland that Springfield built around Abraham Lincoln. It opened in 2005 at a cost of $170 million, yet already is showing its age, in need of a big face-lift despite infusions of state cash. It’s like Six Flags Great America regularly requiring a new high-tech roller coaster to draw a quickly bored public.

Time passes, fame fades. We are all happy George Lucas is hanging around Chicago, where the winters are cold but the people are warm. Of course, let’s consider his museum. But take a long look at it first. Because once it’s there, it’ll be there for a long time.

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg



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