Roger and I were on the road again, invited by Mark Knass and Jim Monroe to go with them to the Astor Classics Museum & Event Center, in Anaheim, California. The museum is the private collection of Art Astor and it is one of the most impressive that we have ever seen. The museum houses nearly 300 classic and modern cars and unique memorabilia from a by-gone era. It is the image and tastes of the man behind the collection, Art Astor, a man who came from humble beginnings to achieve success in the radio business. We were met by Michael Keener, the Director of Operations for the huge museum, who gave us a grand tour of the impressive collection. Keener has been the director for the last three years and his enthusiasm for his job was contagious. Stories flowed forth as he began the tour and ended only after we said our goodbyes. Just as we entered the live, on-air radio broadcast rooms, which shares the spacious building enclosing the museum, Art Astor walked by and Keener introduced us to him. Art was born in Fresno, California to a family that had emigrated from Armenia. The family moved to the West Los Angeles area where Art attended Los Angeles High School and later USC. Art graduated from USC in 1949 and would remain a life-long Trojan, supporting the school, alumni association and other fellow Trojans. He talked about the early days when he went to his favorite hang-out, Harry Carpenter’s drive-in. Pictures of his hot rod with a Merc engine adorned the walls. Astor spoke about the early days of TV and radio and his contributions. He had his own TV program around 1950 and was referred to as the “Armenian Dick Clark.” He served in the Air Force, earning the Air Medal with 4 Clusters. He went into radio as the advertising director and later bought his own stations. His marketing and promotional skills made his small radio company one of the strongest in the region and he coaxed Wolfman Jack to leave Mexico and work for him. One by one he mentioned the celebrities that he knew and those that he helped get to the top of the radio profession. He told us about the actors and personalities that were a part of his collection and knew the most important details of their lives. More than the collection of objects in the museum, the most fascinating thing to us was Art Astor’s wonderful life.
Art left us to attend to business, since he is still very much involved in his radio stations and Keener began the tour. We passed by some very old radios that date as far back as the early 20th century. Art collects whatever fascinates him and that includes radios, slot machines, movie posters, TV sets, toy trains, Art Deco furniture, toys, gas pumps and globe faces and much more. Keener has a staff of eight people helping him, but he and Art do all the buying. They are so well known that sellers will call them up and explain what they have and then will be directed to come right to the museum. Art and Michael will go to the back and look at what’s being offered for sale. In some cases the objects will be donated so that there will always be a home for these relics of our past. Astor started his career in TV with a dance show, and then went directly into radio. Therefore he has an interest in saving objects that concern radio and TV. The collection has over 570 radio sets from every era and they are priceless. Jim Monroe is a collector himself and he was absolutely astounded by the richness and scope of Astor’s radio collection. The Astor Classics Museum & Event Center is not open to the general public, but groups can rent the facility to hold banquets and the added bonus is that they can see the prized collections on hand. They can accommodate any group from 100 up to 500 or more and the museum has ample outdoor parking. Keener mentioned that they can also put up outdoor tents for events suited for the outdoors. This is the only way to see this outstanding museums and collections of artifacts. Keener is another very interesting person. He converted restaurants from one brand to another, and promoted his own car shows at the pizza parlor that he owned. He raced sail boats and was active in motor sports until an injury slowed him down. He was an assistant to the former director and when the job opened up; Astor recognized his abilities and hired him.
It’s a full time job running the museum. Thousands of little details that we have no comprehension of today take up Keener’s attention. He has to know the value of objects no longer used or made, where to get them repaired or restored and who has knowledge of the memorabilia that they buy. There aren’t many skilled craftsmen who can repair an old TV, radio or other objects and he has to find them. Skilled woodworking and metalworkers are needed at times. Most of the cars that are chosen have to be low mileage and in good drivable shape. Other memorabilia also has to be in good shape, though Keener will have some of the more rare pieces restored. He showed us a room full of clocks, paintings and neon signs, most of which are originals. Astor will buy some reproductions, but most of what is in the museum is original works. Keener showed us the model trains, “and we have the original boxes that the train sets came in,” he added. There are 530 miniature cars and engines and they all run. “Everything in the museum has to run, has to turn on and play, there is nothing here that is not functional,” he told us. Then Keener turned on a radio and tuned it to the station with knobs that were ancient and the music flowed through the room. We went into another room and there were telephones on display and hanging from the wall. There were 770 phones in all, from 1876 to the middle of the 20th century. He showed us a 1913 telephone switch board and it worked. The museum has 22 early and rare TV’s, from the very first commercial 1939 RCA set, of which only 6 remain. We saw the first color TV set from 1954. Remember when all the TV sets were in black and white. There were 7 telegraphs, 30 phonographs including a 1903 Edison. The museum has 1000 old vinyl records, more movie posters, a fascinating set of TV and radio Microphones, a 1922 Atwater Kent AM Radio kit set. There was art deco sofas, furniture, piano, bar sets, cash registers and a rare, almost unknown Visionola, a machine that played a vinyl record and showed reels of 1930’s old movies on a flat screen.
Keener took us into the GM room, filled with cars made by that company. Also parked there was a 1954 18-foot Chriscraft wood runabout motorboat. “Art bought a cabin up in the mountains and when he opened the garage door, there was the boat,” said Keener. The museum owns Gary Cooper’s 1938 V-16 Cadillac. There were only ten such Cadillac’s made by GM in 1938. They also own Howard Hughes’ 1940 Cadillac Limousine with its own on-board toilet. We then toured the Packard Room where we saw the 1939 Franay-Packard, the only one ever made and which the museum suspects was used by the German Nazi high command while they controlled Paris. It might have even driven Hitler around when he came to town. The Ford Room contained early Hollywood Actor John Hall’s 1949 Ford Woodie station wagon called the “Hurricane Hall.” There was a one-off 1935 Ford Glaser made in Germany prior to World War II. Clark Gable’s 1936 Ford Jensen Phaeton was on display, one of only 2 such cars brought to the United States. A rare 1937 Ford Roadster, one of only 9 known cars in existence, formed a centerpiece of the museum. Of the nearly 300 cars in the museum, only two are identical and they were convertibles, one to show what the car looked like with the top down and one with the top up. We saw Steve McQueen’s 1947 Ford Woodie station wagon and the 1941 Lincoln Continental given to Rita Hayworth by Orson Welles. Welles and Hayworth were both married to other spouses at the time when the gift was given. The Chrysler Room had a 1950 Town & Country Woodie with a 1953 Hemi engine owned by Jackie Gleason. An outstanding car was the 1941 Town & Country 9 passenger “Barrel Back” Woodie station wagon with seats that fold down creating extra space for luggage. It was no larger than a normal station wagon, but excellently designed and engineered. Karen Carpenter’s 1957 Chrysler 300C Convertible was displayed and it’s interesting to note how small our modern cars are in contrast with those old finned cars from the ‘50’s. The museum also owns the 1955 Chrysler 300C Hardtop owned by Tim Flock, the 1955 NASCAR Champion. The car was raced in only one actual race. A very pretty 1937 Dodge convertible with its original lemon yellow color was also displayed. The museum tries to take only original and low mileage cars in good shape.
Astor drives every single car as often as he can, up to 15 a week. Keener told us that neighbors and friends often watch with delight as Astor takes out a different set of cars each weekend for a drive. Keener showed us a 1933 Chrysler LeBaron Imperial Phaeton convertible, one of only 36 ever made, with a 384 c.i. engine. Next Keener took us to a room to see Art Deco furniture, sofas, tables, chairs and a bar. Astor has acquired an astounding array of memorabilia and artifacts to accompany the age of the motor cars that he has assembled. I didn’t see any cars that went back further than the early thirties. Astor’s taste in furniture goes back to the 1910’s on, and in other artifacts to as early as the 19th century. On the wall were large photographs of his 1938 Ford 5-window coupe. Keener showed us the huge parking lot that has 632 spaces and says that the museum can accommodate groups of 50 to 500 people. At events there are docents who know and understand the collection and who show the guests around. Then he showed us the General George S. Patton Jeep and the displays around it, including a manikin of the hero and a set of his pearl handled revolvers. We were taken into a room filled with die-cast cars and children’s toys, the sort of playthings we had as children. There were also dolls, trophies, plastic car kits, model cars and sports memorabilia. “We try to make the museum as interesting to women and children as we do for men,” added Keener. We walked by a hallway where dozens and dozens of touring suitcases and luggage were lined up, indicating the many ways in which people stored their belongings on car trips. Keener pointed out Hollywood actor Tom Mix’ 1927 Rolls-Royce Custom Springfield Phantom “Playboy Roadster.” Roger looked at the driver’s compartment and remarked how small it was. “Tom Mix was a cowboy and Hollywood star, but he was a short man and had the car customized for him,” said Keener. We walked by the radio broadcasters as they worked in their sound-proof studios, partitioned only by glass and then thanked Michael Keener for a great tour of an impressive collection.
Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].