A new Woody Guthrie Center exhibit about the life and career of Arlo Guthrie will open to the public Tuesday.
Arlo popped in for a sneak preview Monday and occasionally dropped a “wow” when an item in the exhibit snared his attention.
“Oh, look! My dolly!” he said after spotting a doll that was given to him as a child. “My sister stole it.”
Surveying other parts of the exhibit, Arlo said he was “seeing stuff I don’t remember.” But one photograph stoked his memory and led to him telling a story about the photo.
Shown in the photo was William Obanhein, a former chief of police in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. You may know him as Officer Obie from Arlo’s 1967 song “Alice’s Restaurant.” A movie based on the song was released in 1969. Obanhein and Arlo played themselves in the film. Reunited on the film set, Arlo said they hadn’t talked to each other since the based-on-real-life “incident” (Arlo was arrested for littering) mentioned in the song.
Initially, Officer Obie (who volunteered for the film role) didn’t say a word other than what was in the script, according to Arlo.
“But about two weeks into it, he got to me one morning and said, ‘Guthrie, if you hippies can get up at 4 in the morning and go through this wardrobe and makeup crap every day and work for 10 hours, you can’t be all that bad.’ We became the best of friends and stayed friends until he passed away (in 1994). That was a big lesson for me. Sometimes, you judge people by what they are and what they are doing, and it doesn’t always turn out the way you think. It’s a good thing to know, especially these days.”
There’s a bigger picture than what you think you know about someone. And that’s the whole point of the new exhibit.
“People know him from ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and Woodstock,” said Deana McCloud, the Woody Guthrie Center’s executive director. “They know him from those instances, and it’s something to celebrate. Those are great accomplishments that he had. But we also want to dive a little deeper into who he is as a person and into the family and understand that these artists are more than just someone standing on stage or writing songs. They are people. They have real emotions. They have real families. And understanding and respecting that, I think, is important.”
The Woody Guthrie Center bears the name of Arlo’s father. Like pops, Arlo is a renowned songwriter, musician and activist. Among items on display are the guitar he played at Woodstock, the mud-stained jeans he wore at the historic festival, a groovy wedding suit and a letter his mother wrote to him when he was 3 days old. An excerpt from the eight-page letter: “I’m very proud that daddy is such a fighter and I hope that you too will fight right alongside of him.”
The exhibit (“In Times Like These: Arlo Guthrie, Friends and Family”) gets its name from a song Arlo wrote after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. It features rare, never-before-seen photographs, artifacts and writings from the Guthrie family.
“I told Deana right away, as soon as she mentioned this, that the only downside to doing these kind of exhibits is it means you are close to being dead,” Arlo said. “Aside from that, everything’s pretty good.”
Standing nearby, McCloud responded by saying she has many reasons to be glad that Arlo is still among the living. Among those reasons is Arlo is only a phone call away from tackling any Guthrie-related information that needs clarifying.
Arlo continued to tell stories while visiting his exhibit. He talked about the time he and cousin Hoyt Axton appeared on “The Tonight Show.” A more positive experience came when he appeared on a different show.
“That was fun, ‘The Muppet Show,’” he said after spotting a display item related to his guest spot on the show.
McCloud said the center had “so much to pull from” when putting the exhibit together because Arlo’s mother saved many Woody and Arlo items. The items include personal correspondence between father and son.
After exploring the room, Arlo was asked for a reaction.
“It’s fun for me,” he said. “I hope it is for everybody else.”
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