Les Paul’s Homecoming
Honoring the guitar wizard at the Waukesha County Museum
Paul left Wisconsin in the 1930s seeking his fortune in music, but it can’t be said that he never looked back. Always proud to be called “the Wizard of Waukesha,” Paul became a local hero in the Milwaukee area in the years before his death in 2009. On June 9, a permanent exhibition on the musician-inventor opens in his hometown, installed in the stone castle on Main Street housing the Waukesha County Museum. In preparation, an oversize painted sculpture of a guitar by Milwaukee artist Gene Evans has been installed outside the museum, marking the spot.
Waukesha Country Museum isn’t the first area institution to honor Paul. Discovery World dedicates much of its gallery space to an extensive chronicle of Paul as the 20th century’s great engineer of sound. Waukesha is taking a different direction. “It’s story driven, story rich,” says the museum’s president, Kirsten Lee Villegas. “It’s an exhibition for the heart, not the mind.”
Visitors to the Waukesha exhibition will be greeted by a photo opportunity: you can be photographed alongside a life-sized picture of Les Paul. From there, you enter a darkened room displaying aspects of his life on 10-foot tall panels. Videos of the guitarist run in a continuous loop and his music fills the air. A giant photo of Les Paul at age nine, cradling a pet cat, leads to a replica of the family parlor furnished with player piano, radio and gramophone. “It’s taking the visitor into how Les Paul thought,” explains Villegas. “He always wondered how everything worked.” As a boy, Paul punched holes in the player piano rolls to alter their sound; he jabbed a needle into the top of his Sears & Roebuck guitar and played it through the radio receiver in an early, if unwieldy, prototype of the electric guitar. “Les always credited his mother, Evelyn Polfuss, for her encouragement and advice,” Villegas adds.
Visitors will walk through various chapters of his life. Next is a photo of Paul around the time of his professional debut. He was 12 or 13, dressed in a sailor suit and sported a harmonica rack fastened from a wire coat hanger that allowed him to play mouth organ and guitar simultaneously. Whenever he faced an obstacle or an inconvenience, Paul was determined to find a solution. Necessity spurred many of his inventions, especially the electric guitar, which became important in the era of big bands (which drowned out the soft acoustic guitar) and the increasing decibel level of modern life. If Paul wanted to be heard, he had to be amplified.
The exhibition’s interactive aspect is best experienced in the display showing the evolution of his electric guitars, from an early one fashioned from a railroad tie through the Les Paul Gibson. Wave your hand over each of the instruments and you can hear how they sound.
In 1948 Les Paul’s right arm and elbow were shattered in a car accident on his way back to Los Angeles from a performance in Wisconsin. Faced with the prospect of amputation, he ordered the surgeon to set his arm at an angle of nearly 90 degrees, which allowed him to continue playing guitar. New York artists Christa Cassano, Dean Haspiel and Gregory Benton illustrate this sequence of events on panels in graphic novel style. A broken arm might be tragic for most guitarists, but for Paul it was a problem to be solved. “Museums are social experiences—people don’t tend to go alone,” Villegas says. “We wanted to give people a space where they can talk to one another. We anticipated a lot of discussion among people about how Les Paul always found a way.”
The next display replicates a theater marquee and represents the year when Paul and Mary Ford, his wife and musical partner, were popular touring stars. One of the artifacts is Paul’s suitcase-sized recorder, which he used in hotel rooms and any place where the muse whispered. He was a pioneer in home recording and mobile recording.
The exhibition was designed by BRC Imagination Arts, a firm whose résumé includes the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill., and the Heineken Museum in Amsterdam. “We told them that we want to keep bringing everything back to the visitor,” Villegas says. “A lot can be learned from his life—using his inspirational story to inspire the visitor. It’s an exhibition about the human experience. He was a boy from a small Midwest town who pursued his dreams and made profound changes in the world.”
“Les Paul: The Wizard of Waukesha” opens June 9 at Waukesha County Museum, 101 W. Main St., Waukesha. For information call 262-521-2859 or visit lespaulexperience.org.
David Luhrssen’s most recent book is Rouben Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen. He is a contributor to the forthcoming edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.