Pasadena has long been a hub of both science and science fiction, and the latest exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of History offers a fun look at how these two fields have intersected from the 1930s through the 1980s.
Packed with rare props and costumes from legendary franchises including “Star Trek” and “Superman” to nearly forgotten local favorites such as “Space Patrol,” “Dreaming the Universe: The Intersection of Science, Fiction & Southern California” offers a blast from the past that’s as entertaining as it is illuminating.
Curator Nick Smith drew from an impressive array of private collections and institutions to build the exhibition, which runs through Sept. 2. He convinced JPL, Carnegie Observatories and Caltech to open their archives to the museum, while scoring a West Coast debut of imaginative literature illustrations by Hannes Bok, Kelly Freas and Edward Emshwiller from the East Coast-based Korshak Collection.
Add in loans from famed futurist Syd Mead, NBC Universal and Western Costume Co. that encompassed costumes, props and art from “Battlestar Galactica,” “Planet of the Apes” and “2010,” and the impressive results will make visitors feel like they’re visiting other worlds rather than simply a museum.
“The whole idea is that science and science fiction have been influencing each other in Southern California for decades,” says Smith, a Pasadena Central Library technician who previously curated a PMH exhibit on how Civil War veterans helped build up Southern California. “My contacts in both fields made it interesting to see how it happened. There are lots of people at JPL or Caltech who are sci-fi fans, were inspired by or create into the dream of that genre.
“Many sci-fi writers attended Caltech for part or all of their academic careers in the 1920s, and the fact that [Richter scale inventor] Charles Richter was a huge Trekkie is part of the story,” adds Smith. “I have to give credit for a lot of that to Laura Verlach, who did the amazingly difficult paperwork to get these things loaned to the exhibit.”
The exhibition is not just a spectacle of nostalgia, as Smith took pains to ensure that the stories of prominent local figures such as Caltech mathematician Eric Temple Bell — who was a successful sci-fi author under his pseudonym John Taine — were included. The exhibit also spotlights Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, Kelly Freas, Syd Mead, Emil Petaja and Edgar Rice Burroughs and the books, fanzines, art and media they created as well as fan organizations that had a strong influence on them.
Smith notes that books were extremely important throughout Pasadena’s history, as the city’s library actually predated the formal founding of the city. Private citizens originally funded the library, and Smith notes that astronomical institutions have long cropped up in the region as well, including the Mt. Wilson observatory and an earlier attempted one at Mt. Lowe.
“The biggest thrill for me in the exhibit was getting pieces of art, including a painting Wendy Fletcher did for the cover of the program book for the World Science Fiction Convention in the early 1970s that she didn’t even know still existed,” explains Smith. “The other one that had special meaning for me was a piece by artist Hannes Bok, which was not his real name but he had become estranged from his family and did all his artwork under that pseudonym. He died in the 1960s, and we got two color pieces of his including one from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
“It was an illustration for a story by Robert Zelazny and it was the first magazine I bought new at a news stand because of that cover,” adds Smith. “He hung out at Clifton’s [Cafeteria] with Bradbury and other writers and was talked into going to the East Coast and becoming a professional artist for 50 years as a result.”
Several special events/free admission days remain in the exhibition, including Octavia Butler’s birthday on June 22, a Family Free Day on July 22, and Ray Bradbury’s birthday on Aug. 22. Admission is $9 for general public, $8 for students and seniors and free for museum members and children under 12. Call (626) 577-1660 or visit pasadenahistory.org.