Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Safari Museum in Kansas

The story of Osa and Martin Johnson is a remarkable one.  From 1917 to 1936, this young couple from southeast Kansas filmed cannibals in the South Pacific, lions in Africa and crocodiles in Borneo.  They pioneered the wildlife documentary.

Having read Osa's memoir, I Married Adventure, at least three times, I jumped at the chance to tour the museum when I was in Chanute, Kansas, two weeks ago.  It is located in the renovated Santa Fe train depot within walking distance to the charming downtown.

The audacity of this couple continues to baffle me.  They did not go to school; they knew nothing of cameras or film making or wild animals, they just followed their guts and learned as they went along.  They developed a true partnership based on mutual dependence and trust.  Where does one find such confidence?
This is a quote from her book:   "The lion, crouching tensely now, stared at us in what seemed to be an all-consuming hatred.  Then he charged. . . I seemed to be watching in a prolonged, timeless sort of daze and then, without really being aware of what I was doing, I shot . . . The lion seemed to hesitate in mid-air and then fell just thirteen feet from the camera's tripod."

Their films included the first "talkie" made entirely in Africa in 1929 called "Congorilla".  Back in the states, people saw and heard pygmy tribes and the mountain gorillas for the first time.   They saw parts of the world they didn't even know existed.  The Martins were true explorers.   Their films and books became hugely popular--so much so that George Eastman accompanied them on a trip up the Nile to film the rare white rhino.  Unfortuneately, these films disentegrated over time.   The museum has a good collection of incomplete versions, however,  and shows them continuously in their screening room.

"Whoa.  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Back up."

"Jeeze, Mimi, you gave me a heart attack.  What's the matter?"

"Those shoes!  What are those shoes?"

"Ah, I know.  I know.  Aren't they great?  They're made out of zebra skin.  This little "pip squeak" of a woman loved clothes even though she spent most of her life in the bush.  Believe it or not, she used to swing by Paris on the way home to buy the latest fashions.  A woman from Chanute, Kansas, was on the list of the world's ten best-dressed women.  I love it."

"But those shoes!  I want those shoes!"

"Sorry, Mimi, times have changed.  The Grevy Zebra is endangered.  No can do."

"Drat.  They'd match my zebra print blouse so perfectly."

Mimi in the Wilds of Santa Barbara

"I don't know, Marea.  There must be a way.  Do you know any cat burglars?"

Oh brother.

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