It’s a structure in progress with its steel framing and concrete foundations soon to appear, seemingly becoming just another building rising into the city. By appearances, it will probably draw no more than glances from those on the expressway above speeding by on their way to different destinations. But to many, it will be so much more. And to one man, in particular, it will become the reflection of contributions from some of the greatest influences in music, film, theatre, and writing. It’s a vision to be sure. But more than this, it’s a journey where the ghosts of the past and souls of the present share their legacies with anyone interested in pop culture. It’s OKPOP and it’s on its way.
That one man is Jeff Moore, Director of the OKPOP project for the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). His vision is currently under construction across the way from the historic Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. And though it will be called a museum, one must put away images of school field trips to view antiquated collections of artifacts from the dead and history lessons with no soul. OKPOP will be an experience to experience…an enticement of the soul where tunes from our youth forever dance to the rhythm of our very being.
This endeavor is the first structural project for OHS in Tulsa, Moore said. It all began in 2005 with the opening of the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City in which Moore was a member of the team that brought it to life. Following the success of that project which garnered national attention and significantly increased the profile of the OHS, the goal became to utilize that momentum and move on to the next big project. Unbeknownst at the time, the next endeavor would be the beginnings of a project that will eventually encompass the whole of creative history in Oklahoma.
It would be during research into state governors, their personal lives, and history which was that follow up project that the idea for OKPOP was born. It was discovered that former Governor David Boren’s aunt was Mae Bowen Axton aka the ‘Queen Mother of Nashville’. Elvis Presley fans may know her as the co-writer for his first number one hit “Heartbreak Hotel”. She also worked with others such as Eddy Arnold, Reba McIntire, Willie Nelson, and Tanya Tucker to name a few. She is also the mother of singer/songwriter and actor Hoyt Axton.
Having been at the OHS for ten years at that time, Moore was looking for “something outside the box” to continue the momentum the OHS was enjoying. He knew he had found it in when the idea of rock n roll played as a thumping tune in his head. With information like Mae Axton’s accomplishments out there, he knew there had to be more that had to be brought to light and believed an exhibit on Oklahoma rock n roll was the ticket. The powers that be agreed. From that moment in 2006, began the 14-year journey that will soon be the latest addition to the Tulsa skyline. Initially, it was to be an exploration into the lesser-known storylines of the state’s contributions to rock n roll. It would not take long to learn that the connections from those storylines would segue into so much more. By 2007, enthusiasm had grown exponentially for the idea of a rock n roll exhibit.
However, the OHS had no exhibits or collections at that time or anywhere to house them if they had. But first things first. The most important aspect for the OHS was to begin acquiring oral histories from those who contributed to Oklahoma music history. The initiative began with Wanda Jackson aka “The Queen of Rockabilly” interview who had a string of hits in the mid-50s and 60s and was one of the first Oklahomans to gain national attention in the music industry. Having such a high-profile musician’s story under their belt made getting other artists involved much easier, Moore said. The list began to grow.
“This was very much an organic process. We were making headway and bringing in collections. By 2009 we opened up our first exhibit and knew we were on to something. We opened ‘Another Hot Oklahoma Night: A Rock n Roll Exhibit’ at the Oklahoma History Center. It covered the history of Rock n Roll in Oklahoma and launched the effort that has become OKPOP. We were able to work with everyone from Wanda Jackson to Wayne Coyne and Leon Russell to The Kings of Leon.” he said.
The actual building blocks for building new museums had begun in 1995 with the opening of the Route 66 Museum in Clinton. This would be Moore’s first project for OHS and he sees it as one with pop culture roots from various perspectives. And, in many ways, an extension of the pop culture project he is now helping create.
“We knew that because of the success of that museum, which is so rooted in pop culture, that this broadened that concept to include other aspects including Oklahoma’s influence on film, music, comic books, authors and even comedy. We knew that we really had a unique story to tell. In a way, we are telling the story of Oklahoma history through a different lens. And we are telling it through creativity as opposed to facts and dates,” Moore said. Through discovering the many facets which Oklahomans have contributed to the culture of the world, those involved dubbed the entire concept as the “Crossroads of Creativity” with Route 66 the highway in which it was disseminated to the rest of the world.
It would take several years for the actual building blocks to come together. But concrete foundations were not needed to begin building what will one day surely become a legacy of its own. Those involved in the creation of this project have already conducted almost 500 interviews since the inception of a pop culture museum. Many of these are two and three hours long, Moore said. The value of such oral histories is immeasurable and thanks to endeavors such as OKPOP, times of the past will continue to live on for future generations long after those history makers have passed on.
Their voices may no longer vibrate along radio waves or the film characters may no longer glide across movie theater screens, but their legacies and contributions will continue to entertain within the confines of history.
Moore points out the importance of why we should care about those who made marks in pop culture even before many of us were born. Figures like Bob Wills for example and his connection to Cain’s Ballroom. This old building is one of the most significant pop culture locations in the world. Most probably don’t know the reason the interstate runs eight feet from the northeast corner of Cain’s is because of the significance of that building due to Bob Wills and his success; a perfect example of what Oklahomans have contributed to pop culture. Route 66 is another example with its tales of those who traveled it west to fame in California. And there will be so much more of Oklahoma’s contributions to pop culture. Such as interesting tidbits like Bob Wills’ design of the model for touring bands, which he created in the 1930s and is still is used today and that his music shows from Cain’s were broadcast across the US and even in the Pacific during WWII.
Then we have Will Rogers whose nationally syndicated columns and weekly radio shows were enjoyed by over 200 million people during the Depression. These Oklahomans had major impacts on how entertainment would progress in the future…and they started right here in Oklahoma.
As for the building, it will be located at 422 N. Main Street across the street from Cain’s Ballroom and will measure 60,000 square feet, consist of a 300-seat theatre-style venue, smaller listening rooms, retail space and 22,000 feet of exhibit and experience space.
Moore points out that the objective of OKPOP is to not glorify one person or their accomplishments but to tell their stories and the impact their careers had on pop culture as well the influence the state had on them. He added that our cultural diversity is one of the things that makes us unique and adds to the whole of pop culture. This too will be reflected in the exhibits and stories to be housed in the museum.
“We are not a hall of fame where we are checking off boxes to make sure people get into OKPOP. We are looking at this from the perspective of what influence the state has had on popular culture, the impact this state has made,” Moore said. The idea is not just that Oklahomans made an impact, but that Oklahoma made an impact on those who contributed to pop culture.
“This is about Oklahoma’s history, its creative DNA. This capitalizes on our unique history that no other state has. And in the end, I hope it instills pride in what it means to be an Oklahoman,” he said.
One of the slogans that were tossed around among the design team was “Grit & Glitz” suggested by Tulsa architect Chris Lilly. The name just seemed to fit with the state motto of ‘Labor Conquers All’ which is indicative of the strong work ethic in Oklahoma coupled with the glitz of show business. This certainly does seem a fitting description for such an endeavor as OKPOP. But there are many more to be sure. How does one encompass the whole of what it takes to combine the talent, faith, courage, and perseverance it takes to make a mark on society and culture and then bottle it up for show? OHS seems to be answering that question…and correctly it seems with this endeavor. What it’s collecting, recording, and soon housing is who we are, our identity to the rest of the world. We are the embodiment of those who have helped shape pop culture in our world. From Bob Wills to the next big Oklahoma artist. We are and have been a creative force worthy of the motto Labor Conquers All, but with the addition, and pop culture our legacy.
There is currently a huge social media push to make many of these stories and photos available to the public before the doors are open or even installed at this point. To enjoy this aspect of state history visit OKPOP.org.
OKPOP is scheduled to be complete in 2022. Nabholz Construction began in February 2020.