New Santa Catalina Island museum to open with Bettie Page exhibit

Museum director Michael De Marsche was in his element, presiding over the installation of an exhibit bound to raise eyebrows: photos of Bettie Page, the pinup with kitschy bangs, high heels, mesh hose and tasseled underwear who helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The photos taken in 1954 by fashion photographer Bunny Yeager are of a nude, and nearly nude, Page lounging with leopards, deep-sea fishing and cavorting at a carnival, and a January 1955 Playboy centerfold of her winking under a Santa Claus cap while placing a bulb on a Christmas tree.

The images helped elevate pinup shots to an art form, and unleashed a cultural movement, as well as commercial products – Bettie Page lunch boxes, playing cards, towels, action figures – and the 2006 movie, “The Notorious Bettie Page.”

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Now, leaders on Santa Catalina Island hope they will draw attention to the June 18 grand opening of the 63-year-old Catalina Island Museum’s new home in downtown Avalon, the $10-million Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building.

With the Page exhibit, the museum, which had been housed in the landmark casino building, is shifting direction away from what critics had derided as a dull and predictable focus on the Avalon of decades ago, when it was a storied getaway for movie stars and power brokers of Los Angeles.

But De Marsche, the museum’s executive director, still hasn’t decided whether to post an advisory warning that the exhibition, “Bettie Page Uncovered: The Unknown Photographs of Bunny Yeager,” may be unsettling for some viewers.

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As work crews hammered and sawed in adjacent exhibit halls, the tall, droll and energetic man of 60 said, “The point of this exhibition is to shine a light on a transformative moment in American history, one that changed attitudes forever towards sex.”

“We’re not the Louvre,” he added with a wry smile. “Our mission is to educate, entertain and test boundaries.”

De Marsche, who has been the founding director of three museums, including the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan, Armenia, was appointed in 2010 to oversee fundraising and construction of the new museum. He plans to step down in October, and the organization has launched a search for his successor.

The new museum takes its name from Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner, the first grandchild of William Wrigley Jr., who bought the Catalina Island Co. in 1919. Schreiner died in 2010.

Her son, Steve Schreiner, a museum board member, donated $4 million to the museum project.

“Not everyone agrees with what Michael has done,” Schreiner said. “For example, it was challenging to get everyone on our board to agree to the Bettie Page exhibit.”

“But in a time when millennials would rather cruise through museum exhibits online than visit them in person,” he said, “Michael has achieved our goals of creating a new museum, and exhibits that bring in people who also visit our shops, restaurants and watering holes before they leave.”

Over the last five years, De Marsche has attracted record crowds here with exhibits featuring the Beatles, Marilyn Monroe and the Chicago Cubs, which had little to do with Catalina’s heritage.

The museum’s membership grew from 300 to about 2,000. Some of its largest financial contributors were formerly allied with the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy, which manages the island’s wild lands.

Building the new museum in a 3,800-resident harbor resort community hit hard by the ongoing drought and struggling to recover from an economic downturn was a feat.

Just a week ago, the California Public Utilities Commission granted a minimal water allocation needed to open the new museum, ending months of delays over concerns its use of eight bathroom sinks would violate local laws enacted to conserve water amid Stage 2 restrictions.

The new museum features 11,000 square feet of floor space, with galleries devoted to special exhibits, and the collection from the existing museum, which includes Catalina landscape paintings, pottery, vintage photographs, archival documents and Native American artifacts dating back thousands of years.

As for its decision to debut with an exhibition of Page’s saucy poses, Avalon City Councilman Joe Sampson said, “I’m sure it will stir up mixed emotions.”

“Personally, I think it’s cool,” he added. “Bikini scenes are right at home in Avalon.”

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Louis.Sahagun@latimes.com

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