The woman in the wheelchair and headphones is watching pictures go by and hearing a narrator speak about a place and a moment long ago.
On the screen a typewritten love letter appears, and the words scroll down, and you can imagine the woman when she first laid eyes on those words. It was 80 years ago in Pampa, Texas, when Mary Jennings, then 16, succumbed to the sweet words and married Woody Guthrie. Here she was, reliving the memory.
Behind her was her daughter from a later marriage, Anne Jennings, who wiped away tears. Also there was Nora Guthrie, the daughter of Woody Guthrie and his second wife and a driving force of the Woody Guthrie Center.
The Tulsa, Okla., center, an archive and interactive museum, is devoted to the legacy of a singer, songwriter, artist and novelist whose place in the firmament of great American voices now grows ever brighter.
"Will this be here forever?" Mary Jennings, now Mary Boyle, asked.
Yes, indeed it will, Nora Guthrie assured her.
All roads lead to Guthrie
To listen to contemporary singer-songwriters, all roads lead to Guthrie. To listen to Nora Guthrie, the road from here extends in all directions.
Born in Okemah, Okla., Woodrow Wilson Guthrie would've turned 100 in 2012, and a series of celebratory events, concerts and publications put a spotlight on him and his work. Earlier this year a newly discovered novel, "House of Earth," found in archives at the University of Tulsa, came out to much acclaim and a rash of raised eyebrows, given its combination of populist world view, poetic prose and graphically frank sexual content.
And now the Woody Guthrie Center, which opened in late April, focuses his story more than ever before. At interactive stations, visitors can learn about Guthrie's cross-country travels and the stages of his life, from the hardscrabble and dusty years in Oklahoma and Texas, to his arrival in New York, a stint in the Merchant Marine during World War II and his long and sad decline as Huntington's disease, a nerve disorder, ravaged his body and his life. After 15 years living with the disease, Guthrie died in 1967 at age 55.
"It was an awful, awful, awful disease," Nora Guthrie said. Her mother, Marjorie Mazia, became actively involved in raising awareness about the disease and working with genetic scientists to find a cure.
Nora Guthrie was 4 years old when her father was first hospitalized and 17 when he died, and her involvement with his archives over the past few decades has given her a relationship with the father she never really knew. "My experience is with the totally healthy man. It's the joy of my life."
In the Guthrie Center, a 13-minute video chronicles his life and includes testimony from his musical disciples: British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg, bluegrass guitarist Del McCoury ("There's only one or two Woody Guthries who come along in a lifetime"), singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco ("He was all the things you want in your heroes, in your artists"), the Scottish singer Donovan ("Woody was the one that inspired us all").
One exhibit space is devoted to the Dust Bowl. Elsewhere, display cases hold Guthrie's guitars; his fabled, inscribed fiddle, which he rescued twice when the liberty ships on which he was crewing were torpedoed; plus drawings he made on the road.
A circular display in the middle of the main room, much like a shrine, features one of the center's most significant holdings, a handwritten draft of his enduring anthem, "This Land Is Your Land," which is surrounded by listening stations.
At other kiosks children and adults can try their hand at writing their own songs.
Photographs in a gallery space document poignant moments during Guthrie's stay in a hospital. A young Arlo Guthrie, Nora's older brother, pays a visit with his mother. Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a still-active troubadour, gives Woody a hug.
A confluence of people and visions came together to make Tulsa the center's home. Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, had envisioned a Guthrie museum. Nora Guthrie, who serves as president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, had conversations with people from the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation on ways to honor her father. Maybe a statue. Maybe something else.
In the end, the Kaiser Foundation bought the Guthrie archives from Woody Guthrie Publications in 2011 and began to develop a couple of square blocks in a near-downtown neighborhood called the Brady Arts District.
And so the 12,000-square-foot center was born, along with Guthrie Green, a park across the street. It includes a sloping natural amphitheater and a well-designed stage with sound system, all powered by a solar roof on a raised pavilion and a geothermal field underground.
In a news conference at the opening, Nora Guthrie answered the obligatory media question about the possible irony connecting her father, whose life and work was all about standing up and giving voice to the working poor, and a prominent banking billionaire (Kaiser) in Tulsa.
Old political fights are boring, she said, and if her father's work means anything, then inclusiveness and generosity are virtues for all. "The point is," she said, "what do you do with what you're given?"
Overall, Guthrie and museum officials expect the new center to tell a larger story of American history, creativity and culture.
"We're doing more than giving history lessons or a biography of Woody," said Deana McCloud, executive director of the center and a longtime producer of an annual Woody Guthrie Festival in his hometown of Okemah. "What we're doing is showing an example of someone who used his creativity in multiple ways to express his world. His voice was in his lyrics and his artworks, and we can learn so much about the creative process if we view these things and take in everything he was doing."
The Woody Guthrie Center, 102 E. Brady St. in Tulsa, Okla., is open daily Tuesdays-Sundays. Admission, $6-$8. Details: www.woodyguthriecenter.org.