Nethercutt Museum & Collection – Sylmar
Visited: March 10, 2016
Who knew that because so many women use a certain cosmetic product line that I would be allowed to visit one of the coolest museums most people don’t even know exists? Located in Sylmar, the Nethercutt Museum houses what it calls “functional fine art.” If you like vintage automobiles and musical instruments that will blow your mind, this is the place. An even bigger plus is that this museum is free!
In 1923, 10-year-old J.B. Nethercutt moved to Santa Monica from South Bend, Indiana, to live with his aunt, Merle Nethercutt Norman, who also happened to be the founder of Merle Norman Cosmetics. In 1933, he married Dorothy Sykes, and the couple (who were married for more than 70 years) started their love affair…with classic cars.
The collecting became serious in the 1950s. The Nethercutts had lots of cash thanks to the cosmetics business, so they purchased a 1936 Duesenberg Convertible Roadster for $5,000 and a 1930 DuPont Town Car for $500, and the collection grew exponentially from there. In 1971, they opened the museum in Sylmar that now features more than 260 vintage cars, “a world-class collection of automated mechanical instruments” not to mention a locomotive and private car housed out back. Let the journey begin.
I had 1:30 reservations to visit the “Collection,” but I arrived a little after noon to walk around the actual museum, located right across the street from the “Collection.” The museum houses 120 of those automobiles, and they are in pristine condition.
When I walked inside, the “wow” factor struck quickly. I’ll admit that I am not a big “car guy,” although I can put my own gas in the car without blowing up the station. This collection, however, is impressive. Before I go on, if you remember I said the collection is described as “functional fine art.” That’s because every automobile and every piece of music memorabilia is in working condition. I had plenty of time, so even though there were lots of cars, I did not walk at an accelerated pace.
I could see myself behind the wheel of this 1937 Talbot-Lago.
The 1928 Minerva AM Convertible Town Cabriolet from Belgium was once owned by U.S. Army General Billy Mitchell, who many call the “Father of the United States Air Force.”
The 1929 Kissel had a nifty way to store your golf bag.
This 1919 fire engine stood out.
1931 was represented by a great looking Daimler and classy Cadillac.
Only 18 Phantom IV Saloon, 1956 Rolls Royce cars were produced. They were built “exclusively for either royalty or heads of state.” This car was driven by a sheik for only 20 miles along Kuwait’s only paved road at the time. You can see it here.
The ’56 Rolls’ Silver Wraith Touring Limo was owned by Merriwether Post, the Post cereal businesswoman.
I also ran into the Pope….Hartford that is (from 1911).
From a 1911 Matheson…
…to a 1932 Ford…
…to my new Ferrari convertible that I wanted to steal, I was having a blast checking out these cars, but I had a train to catch.
At 12:30, I headed out back to the “Nethercutt Depot,”…
…where you’re allotted about 15 minutes to climb inside a 1912 Pullman Railcar owned by Clara Baldwin Stocker, who was the eldest daughter of E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin (see my report on the Los Angeles Arboretum in California Dreaming for more about Lucky).
You can also hop inside a 1937 Canadian-Pacific Royal Hudson locomotive.
I walked through the Pullman car and checked out the dining room…
Then we stepped inside the locomotive for a minute.
Afterward, I toured around the museum looking at the cars (like this 1913 Chalmers) for about another half hour…
…until I crossed the street for the 1:30 guided tour of the “Nethercutt Collection.”
Before the official tour began, we wandered through even more vintage cars…
…like this 1958 Vespa (the first “Smart Car”?)…
…and a 1925 Mills Double Violano Virtuoso. Only about 25 of these musical machines exist today, and it’s entirely operated by electrical power (and it sounded really good).
Then it was time to go into the “Showroom,” where the room certainly matched the beauty of the automobiles.
As a player piano performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, we walked by an array of even more vintage cars in the Grand Salon that features marble columns and a gorgeous, painted ceiling.
Among the many cars, the 1934 yellow Packard stood out.
…I saw the piano that was playing Gershwin (there is no elevator…it is being renovated and won’t be ready the end of 2016).
We quickly visited The Mezzanine, containing antique furniture…
…including a Lladro piece on a Louis XV style Butler’s desk…
…and more historic music makers…
…but the amazing automated musical instruments were still one more flight of stairs up.
The “Music Room” is where we spent a good amount of time. As some of the vintage “Orchestrations” played some great, old tunes, we were shown a Louis XV style dining room.
The chairs only had one arm, just like the real killer in The Fugitive. The reason? Our tour guide told us that men would wear their swords on the side to dinner; thus the chair only had one arm so that the sword could hang down.
We walked around the Music room, which features pianos, Nickelodeons, Disc Music Boxes and Orchestrations. Some of these European Orchestrations covered an entire wall and sounded like a symphony orchestra was playing inside the room. You have to visit to experience it. Words do these Orchestrations…and the incredible music they play…no justice.
There are a couple of even bigger highlights here. Nethercutt Museum curator, Kyle Irwin, took over at this point. Irwin keeps all these instruments and cars in working order.
The big-ticket item in this room is the 5,000 (5,132 to be exact) pipe Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ. This organ (built in 1907) played in theaters showing silent movies providing both music and sound effects for the audience. Irwin said this Wurlitzer was designed to “take you to some place special” and to “escape.” He played some of the sound effects for us. The organ was retired in 1940.
Also in the room is the world’s heaviest piano. Valued at 2 million dollars, it also has 97 keys instead of the regular 88.
For the final 15 minutes, we heard the organ and the piano play in unison. The room went dark, a couple of curtains opened, and we were able to view some of the colorful pipes of the organ (the pipes surround the room).
These two incredible instruments combined for perhaps the best version of Ghost Riders In The Sky I’ve ever heard and ended with the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Our nearly two-hour tour came to a close.
When you step outside, if you are so inclined, there is a Merle Norman outlet there for you to buy some cosmetics as a “thanks” for the free visit. I decided to pass on makeup test, and no, this is not a cover-up.
I know there are a multitude of museums and places of interest in the Los Angeles area, but this museum, which I had only found out about a few weeks before, would be a great change of pace if you have some extra time here.
If you live in the area, you should take some time to visit. There might not be any planes, but you’ll get a train and lots of automobiles, not to mention some of the sweetest sounding automated musical instruments you’ve ever heard.
Reservations are necessary for the guided tour (done online), and the guided tours are only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
As far as museums go, this one is a cut (or should I say a Nethercutt) above! In other words, you really “auto” go.
The Nethercutt Museum & Collection
15200 Bledsoe Street
Sylmar, California 91342
Hours: Self-guided tours Tuesday – Saturday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Collection is only available to view by guided tour only.
Tours are available on: Thursday,Friday & Saturday
10:00 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. (only 1 tour available on Thursday & Friday)
ADVANCED RESERVATIONS ONLY
Locomotive & Pullman Car Visit: Tuesday – Saturday 12:30 & 3:45 p.m.
Not handicapped accessible
No Walkers, Strollers, Wheelchairs
Cost: Free (but you ned to email for reservations to the Collection)