Hat Tricks

Steve Friesen has on his white gloves, and he's struggling to find the words to describe the treasure in his hands. "It's a chocolate brown," he says, then, "Naah--maybe...buffalo brown. Would that be a buffalo brown?"

That's a bit closer. But how can you describe a particular color when so much else--the crease, the size, the sweat, the mythology, not only of Hollywood but of the entire American West, of the whole damn country--has given the steamed and pressed felt its transcendent quality. Friesen is holding John Travolta's hat, the one he wore in Urban Cowboy, and if that doesn't impress you, the Buffalo Bill Museum curator's office is stacked high with cardboard boxes containing plenty of others. Ronald Reagan's already in a glass case out on the floor, but the good stuff's in here, waiting for September 27, when the museum opens A Century of Celebrity Cowboy Hats: 1898-1998, with a guest appearance by Colorado-based cowboy/ astronaut Wally Schirra. By then, hats worn by the likes of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Lone Ranger's Clayton Moore, Dennis Weaver, Wyatt Earp, Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Redford will be ready to spend the next year among the museum's permanent collection of costumes, guns, American Indian artifacts, show posters and souvenirs from Cody's world-famous touring extravaganza.

Friesen is giddy with anticipation. He originally planned on an exhibit of around 25 hats; now he's at 56 and counting. What's really exciting, he says, is that "a lot of them came from the folks themselves." He's been on the phone to agents, studios, other museums. This afternoon he'll be calling John Wayne's son. "We threw out a huge net for this one," Friesen says. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing--you're not going to see all these hats together in one place again. When it's over here, it's over."

As he talks, Friesen pulls out a pair of Gene Autry galoshes, faded red-and-white rubbers with the Autry logo. "I thought they were a hoot," he says. Then he picks up a Lone Ranger snow globe. "If you tip it over, the rope goes loose and you can rope the calf," Friesen explains, as a tiny blizzard swirls inside the clear plastic, obscuring the Lone Ranger and his calf. "The hats by themselves are interesting, but we wanted to round out the picture," he adds. "Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy--these were B movies. We're not talking Academy Award stuff, but they were so popular. People bought the merchandise in droves."

But it's the hats that capture the imagination. "They're extremely symbolic," Friesen says. "Richard Petty wasn't a cowboy in the traditional sense--he had a different kind of horsepower. But his hat was symbolic of an attitude of speed, power, a little risk-taking. Somewhere in one of these boxes is Burt Reynolds's hat from Smokey and the Bandit, where he played a character who was unlawful but for the right reasons." Friesen wishes he had more women's cowboy hats, but, he says, "we found that the women in country music didn't want to mess up their big hair." Still, there's Patsy Montana (she recorded "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart"), as well as Jane Seymour's ripped, filthy hat from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Friesen concedes that the museum is taking "the People magazine approach to history. Some historians might not like that," he says. "But celebrities are the ones who made the hat a symbol."

--C.J. Janovy

A Century of Celebrity Cowboy Hats: 1898-1998, opening September 27, Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum, 987 1/2 Lookout Mountain Road, Golden, 303-526-0744. Show continues through September 1999.

 
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