Many celebrities don’t have the time for their humble hometowns after they make it big on either of the coasts. Music legend and inventor extraordinaire Les Paul, however, had nothing but love for his hometown of Waukesha.
After all, it was where he began tinkering with his iconic creation, the solid-body electric guitar, under his beloved mother’s watchful eye and performed his first shows as Red Hot Red at Beekman’s Barbeque Stand in Goerke’s Corners.
Now, his hometown is returning the favor.
After years of development, the Waukesha County Museum is in the final stages of preparing "Les Paul: The Wizard of Waukesha," the landmark’s first permanent display as well as the largest Les Paul exhibit in the country to date. The exhibit is set to open this Sunday, June 9, which fittingly marks Paul’s 98th birthday.
The display chronicles the life of the rock icon from his earliest days of tinkering in his childhood "living room laboratory" to his series of industry-changing inventions to his performing career with Mary Ford, his wife at the time.
To help tell Paul’s story, the museum gathered several of the icon’s guitars, inventions and personal effects. These include his first invention – a harmonica brace for his early Goerke’s Corners shows – a guitar stand he created for when he broke his right arm in a near-fatal 1948 car accident, a portable guitar case recorder and his medal as an inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (along side Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and the inventor of the post-it note). The exhibit is also interactive, with a version of his living room laboratory featuring many household objects Paul pulled apart in his early inventing days and a series of strum-able guitar models that chronicle the evolution and sound of his most famous creation.
Perhaps the most valuable asset to the exhibit isn’t an object at all, however, but the Les Paul quotes that cover the walls. Paul enjoyed tinkering with words and names almost as much as he enjoyed tinkering with household objects, something that becomes very clear walking through the exhibit and reading about inventions like "The Log" (one of his solid-body electric guitar prototypes) and "The Paulverizer."
For Kirsten Lee Villegas, the president and CEO of the Waukesha County Museum, it was crucial that the local legend’s story be told in his own words.
"It’s actually Les Paul himself taking you through and sharing his life story," Villegas said. "We really wanted to make sure that, because we are the museum in Les Paul’s hometown, we told his story in the way that he wanted it to be told."
An important part of Les Paul’s story was his mother Evelyn Polsfuss, who he claimed to be "the biggest single influence of his life." The exhibit fittingly has a large portion of the exhibit’s wall of mentors dedicated to her, alongside a trophy Les made for her 100th birthday with a Miller beer can.
"It was actually his mother who encouraged him to pick up the guitar," Villegas said. "His very first instrument was the harmonica, but he wanted to perform playing the piano. It was his mother who told him that if he wanted to perform and travel around, not every place is going to have a piano. So she recommended playing the guitar."
As Paul’s story came together through the exhibit, Villegas noticed a strong message coming through that not only showcased his remarkable achievements, but also put the spotlight on his treasured small town origins.
"Creativity can be explored wherever you are," Villegas said. "You don’t have to be in a certain special place in order to find a passion and pursue your dreams. It’s really a story that goes beyond his inventions and beyond his guitars. It really is a story about the human spirit, creativity and pursuing your passion. Les Paul is the perfect ambassador to tell that story because he truly did live the American dream."
"The Wizard of Waukesha is a name he called himself," said Brad Smith, an advisory board member for the exhibit and the museum’s "resident Les Paul geek." "He was always trying to bring it back to Waukesha. It was to encourage people to see what they had in front of them."
In order to bring Les Paul’s story to his hometown, Villegas and the Waukesha County Museum put together a wide-ranging group of advisors. Audio engineer Alan Parsons, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Greek-Australian singer-songwriter Orianthi are just a few of the remarkably diverse musicians and industry members the museum recruited to help put together "The Wizard of Waukesha."
According to Smith, convincing them wasn’t hard, especially since "every band has a debt to Les."
"We approached a lot of these players, and it was remarkable," Smith said. "Everyone was like, ‘Sign me up!’ They were all very willing and very eager to see this done right. They felt it was the right time, the right team and the right connections to get it done. They’ve been great about getting the word out in the artist community, adding to the collections and giving it some sizzle."
Also helping their cause is a recent Joint Effort Marketing (JEM) Grant that gave the museum $28,250 to help promote the exhibit outside of Wisconsin. The hope is to bolster tourism and bring more attention to Wisconsin and the greater Milwaukee area as a destination for music fans.
"We really feel as though the museum has the capability of being a regional tourist destination," Villegas said. "This is the first step in that direction."
Walking through the exhibit, it truly does feel like Les Paul is there, personally guiding you through his life story and the inventions that changed music forever. It seems the Wizard of Waukesha has lost none of his magic.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.