Ethan Wayne was just 17 years old when he lost his father, the iconic American actor and filmmaker John Wayne. Now at age 59, he has spearheaded an extraordinary exhibit that lets his father’s fans tip their hat to memories of the legendary “Duke” — and it’s in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Called "John Wayne: An American Experience," the 10,000-square-foot exhibit goes inside the life of Marion Mitchell Morrison, known worldwide to his fans as classic Western movie star John Wayne.
Opened in December at 2501 Rodeo Plaza, the museum displays never-before-seen family photos, iconic film props (like his cowboy hat collection), letters from presidents and celebrities, and even his dark green 1976 Grand Safari. (Fun fact: Wayne had the roof raised on the vehicle so he wouldn’t have to take off his cowboy hat upon entry.)
Wayne says he never realized how much memorabilia his father had amassed until he accessed the collection after his oldest half-brother, who previously ran the family business, died in 2003.
“I thought, ‘My gosh, we have a lot of really significant memorabilia here,” he says. “I don’t think the rest of the family really knew. From that moment we started thinking about how we were going to find a home for it.”
An idea sparked when Wayne met Craig Cavileer, executive vice president of Majestic Realty Co. (which developed the Stockyards' Mule Alley complex and Hotel Drover) at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas two years ago. Ethan had set up a pop-up museum there with a small sampling of his father’s memorabilia — just to gauge interest, he says.
Cavileer convinced Wayne to visit Fort Worth and consider the Stockyards as a permanent home for the John Wayne Experience. It wouldn't be the Wayne family's first connection to Fort Worth. Ethan Wayne's mother Pilar, the widow of John Wayne, owned a café called Pilar’s on Bryan Irvin Road back in 2006.
"Now that the Stockyards redevelopment is happening and coming to life, we’re really happy because it’s the perfect spot for John Wayne,” he says.
A look inside
In the extensive gallery called “Life on Screen,” guests are taken on a tour through John Wayne’s lengthy career. Notable pieces on display include both the screenplay and Wayne’s Academy Award for Best Actor for the 1969 movie True Grit, as well as many personal letters and telegrams from the likes of Carol Burnett and Jerry Lewis.
But it’s in the “America, Why I Love Her” gallery where guests get a glimpse of Wayne’s personal life and patriotism. On display is his Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter, his Congressional Gold Medal, and his Grammy-nominated original poems.
One of Wayne’s most successful business ventures outside of acting was ranching, which provided him an escape from Hollywood. He lobbied both Presidents Nixon and Ford on behalf of U.S. cattle ranchers, and also helped develop more humane ways to feed and handle livestock. His ranching lifestyle helped define Wayne as a real Westerner.
Ethan Wayne says upon studying the many artifacts and mementos from his father’s life, it was most “eye-opening” for him to learn how much time he gave to other people, be they friends, family, or strangers.
“He was a great listener. He had very strong opinions, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to hear yours if you had a different opinion,” he says.
John Wayne Day
John Wayne’s birthday is May 26 and in Texas, the day is officially known as “John Wayne Day” thanks to a proclamation declared in 2015 by Gov. Greg Abbott. This year, the Wayne family was in Fort Worth to celebrate with a dedication of the museum.
The John Wayne exhibit itself is open daily from 9 am-6 pm. Admission is $20.95 for adults and $16.95 for kids ages 6 to 12. Children 5 and under are free. Admission is not required for the exhibit’s retail store, which is stocked with limited-edition apparel, books (including children’s books), fine Western art, leather goods, drinkware, and Western accessories.
“If you’re curious [about his life], it’ll be a terrific place,” Ethan Wayne says. “If you don’t know anything about him, it’ll still be a terrific place because he’s an inspirational person.”