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  • Dion Wright

Upheaval at the Desert Museum, or Amanda's Defeat

After meeting Amanda Blake a time ot two I got over a sense of her as a celebrity. She seemed to want to leave that aspect of her life out of her identity within the world of the Arizona/Sonora Desert Museum, where I was the staff artist for a period in the 70's. In part, Amanda probably owed her seat on the board of directors there to her celebrity. The animals were her paramount concern, after all. In her relations with those of us who worked at the Museum, she was as real and unaffected as apple pie.

Amanda Blake with Cub

Amanda had the wherewithal to indulge her love of animals in a big way. She went frequently into the veldt. She was trying, with mixed success, to raise cheetahs in Arizona (she had over twenty of them). That is a challenging project because of the fragility of the cats, and the small ammount of variation in their gene-pool. Amanda's personal pet was a large old male African Lion, which had a compound bigger than my house to live in. She told me how she used to go in there to hang out with the lion sometimes, so gentle was he. But then one day the big guy sat down on her and fell asleep. She was stuck for hours before somebody showed up to help, and after that her approach was more conservative.

It had been another one of those serendipitous unfoldings which had landed me in my job at the Desert Museum. I was driving the peripatetic artist, Joe Miller, home to Mobile from San Diego when we stopped at the Desert Museum to see what that institution was, never having heard of it before. I had a five foot high welded sculpture of a praying mantis with me, and just for the fun of it, I left it at the office for the folks there to look at while I toured the grounds. When I came back out again, I discovered that my sculpture had found its way into Director Merv Larson's inner sanctum, to which I was conducted, with the red carpet treatment - much to my surprised gratification. Merv bought the piece from me on the spot - even MORE gratifying - and offered me a job at the Museum, which I accepted. I returned there after having resolved my sundry loose ends in San Diego, and began a wonderful period of life.

The Desert Museum under Merv Larson was worthy of treatment by John Steinbeck, as he did in Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row. The place had the same kind of nice community essence as those two places Steinbeck had created, and the people there were equally colorful, varied, interesting, and amusing, often in the most absurd and ironic ways. It was personal there. The folks were more like a family than just a bunch of employees in a company. They all cared about the stewardship of Nature, first and foremost, which inculcated a kind of philosophical solidarity which nobody at the time realised was as fleeting and fragile as it turned out to be. I made fast friendships throughout that organization many of which still continue. None of the people whom I knew there then continue there now, however. A political tsunami rolled across the Desert Museum and left it utterly and permanently changed. Amanda tried to keep it from happening, but she was flattened along with the employees.

Unavoidable personal leveraging forced me to leave my position at the Museum several years before the denouement occurred, but I remained in close contact with the place throughout. All was well until Bill Carr died. He, along with Arthur Pack, of Ghost Ranch in Abiqiu, NM was the founding genius of the Desert Museum, and the Grey Emminence that stood over the place like some guardian angel. Bill Wooden had been the apprentice of Bill Carr, and Merv Larson was the apprentice of Bill Wooden. It was a good old-fashioned dynastic hierarchy which Bill Carr controlled by his influence over the board of directors. When Carr passed away, I was already in negotiation with the Museum for the construction of a major sculptural piece as an independent contractor, a sequential study of bird evolution. My negotiations were successful and I was doing my project there as I witnessed the complete unravelling of the community I had known.

When Bill Carr died, a vacuum appeared at the center of the board of directors, and this vacuum was instantly filled by the inflation of Bazie Tankersley, daughter of Col. Robert "Bertie" McCormack, owner and publisher of the reactionary Chicago Tribune. She tried to take control of the organization by ousting Merv Larson and installing a Director of her choice. Merv was in some kind of personal chaos at just this moment, and unable to successfully fend off the attack.

Amanda went to bat for him, but her advocacy and his presentation were not forceful enough to persuade wavering board members, and Ms. Tankersley won the day. Her man for the top slot was one Holt Bodenson, a character very different from the hands-on Merv. Bodenson was a product of east coast schooling, and had been head of environmental education in New York State. He was very bureaucratic and suave, where Merv had been somewhat rough-hewn, and willing to enter the trenches when called there. Merv's training had been from the mixing of cement on up to shmoozing the patronage, on top of his Forestry degree from Cal, and his style was project-oriented and visionary. Mr. Bodenson, whom I met on several occasions through the development of my sculpture project, was a sharp dresser, a pipe smoker, and a pleasant non-communicator. He was very friendly but as smooth as a seal. How could he communicate? He was in enemy territory, among Merv's people. For all he knew, I was one of THEM. And I WAS, by golly.

Merv had a natural leadership quality that commanded respect without compulsion. When he had been successfully extirpated by the Tankersley putsch, the hierarchical mindset kicked in among all those left behind, and it seemed natural to everybody at the Museum that Chuck Hanson, the large-mammal curator, should step into the Alpha Male role among the workforce - especially to Chuck. Hanson had no respect for Bodenson, couldn't stand Tankersley, and thought that the turncoat directors were a gaggle of spineless wimps. This was not good footing on which to interface with the new boss. If everybody at the Museum hadn't gone along with Chuck as leader, the annihilation might not have been so complete, but, go along they did. Chuck, looking at matters from the perspective of an African Lion, or a Grizzly Bear, wished to go down into a pit with Holt Bodenson, and chomp his neck: may the best beast rule! Holt demurred, and just fired the whole staff, replacing them with CITA employees. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The best place in the world had suddenly imploded into just another bureaucracy, vision truncated, and a differnet paradigm installed. I do not even know if the new paradigm has Nature at its center or not.

And Bazie Tankersley? Why did she want it? Why did she want to take over that place and run it her way? Did she have a vision? What WAS it? Was it no more than a fetching power-game to win? Was the Museum no more than a new fiefdom for her? Did she sieze it simply because she could? ...All that accumulated expertise thrown into the ashcan for the sake of some domination... I wish I could put it all back the way it was. I haven't had the heart to go back there for many years. I hope it is still a place which defends the environment...

Amanda Blake was distraught, and powerless. I went up to see her at Scottsdale, and she was tsk-tsking and almost in tears over the catastrophe. "Even including Hollywood, that's the most irritating woman between here and Turra Lurra Lipschitz," said Amanda, in a favorite phrase. But, she had other things on her mind. She was commencing her battle against cancer of the palette (what a fate for an actress), which she eventually beat. But then, she remarried, and her new husband gave her HIV for a wedding present. That killed her off quick.

We grow old. Whatever follies we may perpetrate upon Nature during our fleeting presence, Baboquivari will still rise imperturbable out of Papagoland to the southwest of the Arizona/Sonora Desert Museum.

Baboquivari Peak at Dawn

© 2015 by Dion Wright

#AmandaBlake #DesertMuseum

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