In Bowie, a museum dedicated to John Wayne

March 16, 2011

Do not go to the John Wayne Museum in Bowie expecting an IMAX theater. Do not go expecting a gift shop. There is no IMAX theater at the John Wayne Museum in Bowie. There is no gift shop. Obviously, there is no John Wayne, either. He died in 1979.

What there is at the John Wayne Museum in Bowie is Bill Atkins, a 78-year-old commercial real estate agent who in 1950 spent four weeks as an extra in a John Wayne movie and never quite got over it.

Bill was a 19-year-old Marine from Dundalk, Md., stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., when it was invaded by RKO Studios in 1950. They were there to shoot “Flying Leathernecks,” in which John Wayne played a World War II Marine Corps pilot. A tiny corner of the base was turned into Guadalcanal. With most of his battalion off fighting communists in Korea, Bill and some of his buddies were tapped to be mud-covered U.S. Marines crawling around at the edges of the camera frame.

“I never looked upon it as any big deal,” Bill said. “But after meeting with Dan, he made me realize it was a big deal.”

Dan is Dan Hornak, a John Wayne impersonator who performs under the stage name Jake Thorne. Five years ago, Dan saw a life-size John Wayne cardboard cutout advertising beer in a Bowie liquor store. He asked if he could have it. The liquor store owner said sure, when we’re done with it. But when Dan came back to pick it up, the cutout was gone. Bill Atkins, the guy who was in a movie with John Wayne, took it, the liquor store owner explained.

Dan convinced Bill that the John Wayne memorabilia he had been accumulating over the years deserved a more public showplace than Bill’s basement. And so in 2006, Bill turned half of his real estate office into the John Wayne Museum. It’s in a little-traveled nook of the Hilltop Plaza Shopping Center at Route 450 and Race Track Road, behind a 7-Eleven and near the carryout window for Outback Steakhouse.

“I run a one-man operation,” Bill said. “If they see my car parked there, they know I’m here. Next door there’s a Jazzercise. A lot of the ladies who go there, their husbands drop them off and they see the John Wayne Museum and a lot of them pop in.”

What they find in the tiny museum are John Wayne movie posters, John Wayne head shots, John Wayne cardboard cutouts, John Wayne T-shirts, John Wayne magazine covers. There’s a bag of John Wayne Beef Jerky, which I’m pretty sure is neither made from John Wayne nor tastes like John Wayne. There’s a list of the 154 movies John Wayne starred in, “Flying Leathernecks” being No. 108.

“That’s the number I play,” Bill said. “I’ve won [the lottery] several times with that number.”

There are photos taken during the making of “Flying Leathernecks,” with Bill helpfully pointed out with red arrows — and, really, the best part of the John Wayne Museum is Bill Atkins. Go there and shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of the Duke, the straight-shootin’, square-talkin’, all-American cowboy.

“John Wayne was the most down-to-earth guy I ever met,” Bill said. “He had no phony airs about him.”

Bill has seen the Coen brothers’ new film, “True Grit.” He thought it was okay. “But I didn’t think it added anything to the movie,” he said. “To me, it’s like saying let’s remake ‘Gone With the Wind.’ I don’t know what it’s going to add to it. It was good, but it wasn’t John Wayne.”

Bill does not limit his John Wayne proselytizing to his museum. He has a petition for you to sign to get George Washington’s face taken off the $1 bill and John Wayne’s put on it. The petition was posted for a while at the 7-Eleven next door, before the “corporate” people made him take it down.

“I had seven pages of signatures,” he said.

Bill still has a bunch of what he calls “Duke Dollars”: dollar bills on which he has pasted a cowboy-hatted, green-tinted John Wayne.

“When someone comes to the John Wayne Museum, if they’re a true John Wayne fan they leave with a Duke Dollar in their hand,” he said.

When’s the last time somebody paid you to go to Air and Space?

For a video tour of the John Wayne Museum, go to postlocal.com.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section.
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