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New exhibit to fete a pioneer guitarist

Milwaukee-area musicians and the Discovery World museum team up for an interactive exhibit honoring Les Paul.

MILWAUKEE - An innovative young museum has agreed to help salvage an effort to pay homage to an innovative old musician.

Milwaukee's Discovery World has agreed to create an exhibit to honor hometown guitar legend Les Paul.

The Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum was planning to open an exhibit honoring Paul, but the project had come to a near stop.

The museum's fund-raising had reached only $1 million of its $3 million goal. The museum's head left last summer and has not been replaced. On top of that, Paul, who was born in Waukesha, turns 93 on June 9.

So a group of Milwaukee-area musicians formed a nonprofit group and went to Milwaukee's Discovery World in January and to Paul. Could one of the newest museums in town create a Les Paul exhibit?

Museum head Joel Brennan said it didn't take much to persuade the museum. The interactive exhibit fits in with the museum's emphasis on hands-on displays in the latest technology. Paul created many commonly used technical techniques used by today's musicians: close miking, multitrack recording and use of echo delay.

Brennan sees the exhibit as complementary to the Waukesha effort and hopes it stimulates opportunities for that museum to raise money.

"Les Paul's House of Sound" opens June 21 and runs through Jan. 31 at the nearly two-year-old museum on Milwaukee's lakefront. It will concentrate on Paul's contribution to music technology, but also combine art and history.

Artifacts will be displayed from Paul's personal collection, including his first electric guitar and some of his early recording models. Visitors also will be able to learn guitar and record their performances.

Richard Cook, who is a friend of Paul's, Larry Glusman and the others embarked on the effort because they wanted to make sure Paul was appropriately celebrated.

"[We] started to get a little worried that things weren't really going to happen in enough time for Les to be able to appreciate it, to participate in it, see it, feel good about it," Glusman said. "So it really was just a hunch that this could be the right place at the right time."

Cook said organizers were not interested in quashing Waukesha's efforts and hoped their endeavor helped that exhibit, which is to be called "The Les Paul Experience" and showcase Paul's inventions and performances. It is expected to open about 2010.

Dave Frazer, the interim director at the historical society, could not be reached for comment. Cook said that he had spoken with museum officials and that they still planned to move forward. The museum has applied for a $1 million grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Les Paul, in a telephone interview from his Mahwah, N.J., home, said he was excited for people to get a hands-on experience. The idea was really Bing Crosby's years ago, he said.

Crosby wanted Paul to have a "House of Sound," where people could learn how to play guitar.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland opened a permanent Paul exhibit in 2004, but other efforts in the Milwaukee area over the years failed for one reason or another.

Paul said he never put the effort into the "House of Sound" or other exhibits because he was too busy.

"I said I will do all that when the time comes, and I feel that now is the time to start getting my stuff together just because of my age and I can count," he said. "When it's time to pick out where they are going to bury you, it's kind of telling you you better get your act together."

Paul still gets on stage twice every Monday night with his trio at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. He said he is also writing his autobiography.

Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915 to a German immigrant family in Waukesha, he built his first crystal radio at age 9, about the time he first picked up a guitar. By his early teens, he had left home to travel with a country band.

Paul built one of the first prototypes for the solid-body electric guitar in 1941, but his work was rejected numerous times. Gibson finally began mass-producing a guitar based on his design in 1952, and the electric guitar went on to become the lead instrument in rock and roll.

Over the past four decades, he has won various awards, including a Grammy with Chet Atkins for best country instrumental performance. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and won a lifetime achievement award at the Emmys. In 2006, he won Grammys for best pop instrumental and best rock instrumental.

The day the exhibit opens, Les Paul will perform a concert titled An Evening with Les Paul and Friends at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, and the proceeds will benefit the exhibit.

Brennan said organizers would consult with Paul at year's end to determine if Discovery World is the best place for the exhibit.

"This is the first taste of what we hope will be a community-wide effort to honor Les and to continue to experience some of the innovation and some of the impacts he's had over his lifetime," he said.