It didn't even last 50 years. Last Friday's long-awaited exhumation of the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere sport coupe was not the hoped-for glorious resurrection. It was more like "Night of the Living Dead." Or, as one visiting Chrysler owners' club official suggested, like a scene from Stephen King's Christine. Or that scene at the end of Psycho, when they pull Marian Crane's car out of the swamp.
The Belvedere, as everyone knows by now, was wrapped in an aluminum-lined paper material called Metalam and buried in a gunnite-lined concrete crypt on June 15, 1957, on the lawn of the then-new County Courthouse as part of the city's week-long statehood semi-centennial celebration called "Tulsarama!"
By Friday evening's unveiling, everyone was well prepared for the worst. As Brian Ervin reported online at www.urbantulsa.com, an early inspection of the vault revealed a couple of feet of water in the vault and evidence that the car had been completely submerged on several occasions.
Just before the car was raised from the vault on Friday at noon, we were instructed by MC John Erling not to be disheartened by the rusty residue covering the car's white shroud. A protruding tailfin told the story -- the Shroud of Tulsa had long ago been breached, and the rising and falling water had carried bits of rust from the car to the cover.
The time capsule looked just as rusty and crusty but appeared to be intact.
Were You There?
At about 1:30pm, the experts assembled in the north loading dock of the Maxwell Convention Center arena began peering under the shroud to inspect the Belvedere. Crowds lined the walls and the parking garage decks overlooking the dock. As workers hosed off the undercarriage, water as red as Oklahoma City dirt pooled on the concrete below. Observers at ground level could see shrunken tires, small reddish-brown stalactites on the underbody, and rusted leaf springs.
Meanwhile, a few feet away, workers with a circular saw, a hammer, and a chisel began to cut around one end of the time capsule. They stopped a few inches short of the full circumference, waiting for the big show to make the final cut.
Friday night's unveiling was officially a sellout, but there were quite a few empty seats, particularly in the upper deck at the far end of the arena. The crowd suffered through more than 30 minutes of Erling and his co-host (and Tulsa Statehood Centennial chairman) Sharon King Davis vamping until the live KOTV broadcast began at 7pm and the unveiling commenced.
Erling's selection as MC for this event was something of a disappointment. He retired way past his prime from KRMG in 2005 after years of declining ratings -- his insipid voice was no longer a welcome presence in the lives of Tulsa listeners. But, seemingly as a reward for his years of faithful service as a mouthpiece for the city establishment, he continues to get the MC nod any time PR firm Schnake Turnbo Frank is running the show.
Erling is a relative newcomer compared to a number of local media personalities who were around in 1957 and are still around (and still beloved) today, any of whom would have been a more appropriate and enjoyable choice.
Former KOTV weatherman Lee Woodward arrived in Tulsa the month that the car was buried.
(Wouldn't it have been fun to hear King Lionel do running commentary on the proceedings?) His colleague, true newsman Clayton Vaughn came to Tulsa around the same time to work in radio, and after his retirement from Channel 6 he served several years as the head of the Tulsa Historical Society.
Dick Schmitz joined the KAKC staff in 1957, served as a newsman and DJ, and today runs a recording studio, Irving Productions. A clip of him shown during Friday night's program revealed him to be in good voice still today.
(Having a KAKC personality on stage would have been fitting in another way -- Sharon King Davis's grandfather, Sam Avey, was one of the station's owners.)
Just two weeks before the Belvedere was buried, Ed Dumit, then a 27-year-old radio-television professor at TU and still today the voice of KWGS, was named possessor of Oklahoma's most beautiful speaking voice in a contest co-sponsored by KVOO and NBC.
Passing by these dignified media veterans, these eyewitnesses of Tulsa in 1957, was a missed opportunity and a shame.
At long last the curtain was raised and workers began to peel back the Metalam to reveal the decayed corpse of Miss Belvedere.
Crowbars were used to open the trunk and the hood. The doors wouldn't budge although a few chunks of oxidized steel flew off in the attempt. The cans of Schlitz (donated by nightclub owner and jazz musician Clarence Love) and the glass bottle of gasoline were retrieved from the trunk and placed on a table at center stage. They were covered with rust but apparently intact.
There was some doubt about the location of the microfilm containing the entries in the population prediction contest -- closest guess to Tulsa's 2007 population would win the car. A bluish, roundish thing that was retrieved from the back seat was thought to be part of a microfilm canister, but it turned out, upon closer examination, to be the badly-deteriorated cover of a Lawrence Welk LP.
OSU students rubbed the grunge off some of the chrome, which did shine up nicely. And the signatures on the whitewalls were still visible.
But when the trunk lid was lowered back down it gave a sickening wobble, hinting that the right-hand hinge was nearly rusted through.
It was a relief then to discover that the contents of the time capsule were dry and intact. Inside the top was a colorful Tulsarama bumper sticker, as vivid as the day it was printed.
White-gloved Tulsa Historical Society staffers watched nervously as Erling grabbed artifacts from the capsule and waved them around, dropping some to the floor, setting others on the table that had recently held the rusty beer cans from the trunk.
The time capsule included a commemorative Tulsarama! china plate, a Frankoma ashtray, a 45 of the official Tulsarama! song ("Riding into Tulsa" by Ralph Blane), a small TU pennant, a poster advertising the population-guessing contest, the May 30, 1957, Tulsa World, a 1956 Polk City Directory (evidently the '57 edition had yet to have been published), three film reels, including the American Petroleum Institute's film "Destination Earth," copies of the official Tulsarama! program and the Chamber's semi-centennial tourism guide, "Tulsa, I. T.," the proposed script for the semi-centennial time capsule program, a Tulsarama! T-shirt, a set of two decks of Tulsarama! playing cards, still in their cellophane wrappers, TU's annual bulletin, and a copy of the newspaper display ad for "The Little Hut," a film starring Ava Gardner that was showing at the Will Rogers Theater. (That art deco landmark was demolished years ago for parking by Sandusky Ave. Christian Church.)
So why didn't the car fare as well as the time capsule? After the unveiling, theories swirled around the press room. Concrete is, someone pointed out, porous, and even a sealant like gunnite would be susceptible to half a century of hydraulic pressure from groundwater. However well the wrapping material might have held up to the air, it would have been no match for the repeated freezing and thawing of water.
Surely someone in Tulsa, then the Oil Capital of the World, with hundreds of businesses engaged in supplying equipment for oil exploration and refining, would have known how to build a sturdy, impervious metal vessel big enough to hold a car.
Learning from History
Even though Miss Belvedere turned out to be soggier than Ted Kennedy's Delta 88, she fulfilled her purpose then and now. In 1957, she had Tulsans thinking about what their city would be like 50 years hence, and she drew the attention of car buffs around the world.
Fifty years later, hundreds of reporters and photographers came to Tulsa to see the car come out of the ground, putting Tulsa in the world media spotlight for a few days.
Some of the motorheads who gathered for the unearthing began planning their visit more than a decade ago. The Belvedere may have been rusty, but hundreds of shiny vintage cars were here to greet her and to dazzle the collected crowds. Visitors filled hotel rooms and bought meals and souvenirs. Hundreds of newspapers around the world ran stories about the event.
The gathered media personnel seemed to be happy with the welcome they received. Those who managed to pick their way across the Boston Avenue construction zone to the Tulsa Press Club the night before the exhumation received a set of fuzzy dice, some hors d'oeuvres, and a reasonably well done press packet about the city.
(Oddly, the press packet omitted any mention of OK Mozart, the international music festival in full swing just 40 miles to the north, and gave only a brief nod to Light Opera Oklahoma, another of Tulsa's premiere annual arts events.)
For some reason, organizers didn't see the need to post signs helping visiting reporters find their way to their assigned parking and seating areas for the unearthing. And if they returned that night planning to park in the same YMCA lot, they would have found that it had reverted to its usual purpose as outdoor soup kitchen.
Only one mystery remains: Who wins the car? While paper copies of some population guesses were found in the time capsule, the expected roll of microfilm has yet to be located.
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