This new Fresno museum honors a Central Valley literary giant
21 September 2018
When you think about museums, quiet suburban neighborhoods don't usually come to mind.
But that's where you will find The William Saroyan House Museum - nestled in a northwest central Fresno neighborhood a few blocks west of Cooper Middle School. The modest track home is where the Fresno-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning Armenian-American author William Saroyan spent many of the last 17 years of his life when he wasn't traveling.
The only clue that the house isn’t typical: A plaque near the front door honoring the Oscar- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
The museum is a combination of the typical collection of a historical museum and some high-tech flourishes, including a hologram of Saroyan talking about his philosophy of life and what it means to be a writer. The hologram is displayed in a recreation of his home office, including the same model of the typewriter he used to write his manuscripts.
The rest of the house turned museum features photos, videos of interviews with Saroyan, drawings, and posters of his work. Another interesting feature: Behind the front desk, a collection of polished rocks Saroyan collected from his travels are on display. A collection of the covers of the works of William Saroyan is one of the features of The William Saroyan House Museum in Fresno.
A museum is born
The Armenian-based The Renaissance Cultural and Intellectual Foundation bought the house in 2015 and spent three years collecting materials and renovating the building. While the official ribbon-cutting opening ceremony was held in early September, the museum opened officially to guests Sept. 20.
Visitors must make reservations to visit the museum at https://saroyanhouse.com. Walk-up guests are not allowed. Admission is free. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays.
The 1,228-square-foot house built in 1964 had three different owners since Saroyan’s death in 1981 and was in foreclosure when the foundation purchased it, museum public relations manager Paula Der Matoian said.
"Sadly, every trace of Saroyan was gone from the house," Der Matoian said. "Even his fruit trees in the backyard had died."
Legendary writers are often linked to the regions they wrote about: John Steinbeck and the Salinas Valley. Tennessee Williams and New Orleans. Or William Faulkner and Mississippi.
The organizers hope that the museum will help Saroyan cement his now fading reputation as the literary voice of the Central Valley, especially Fresno.
"We want people to remember what an important writer he was," said Barlow Der Mugrdechian, a member of the museum board and the director of Armenian studies at Fresno State.
Saroyan was born in Fresno in 1908 to Armenian immigrant parents. After dropping out of high school in Fresno, Saroyan moved to San Francisco and then New York City. In 1934, Saroyan had his first literary and commercial success with "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories," a collection of short stories that celebrated the immigrant experience in America.
In 1939, he won the Pulitzer Prize for the play "The Time of Your Life." In 1943, he won the Academy Award for his screenplay for "The Human Comedy,” a semi-autobiographical movie about his childhood in Fresno.
After his early commercial and artistic triumphs, Saroyan continued writing until his 1982 death of prostate cancer. While none of his later works reached as wide audiences as "The Time of Your Life" or "The Human Comedy" critics still praised his often challenging and experimental writing.
Saroyan up close
Der Mugrdechian has fond memories of meeting Saroyan in the final years of the writer's life when as a student at Fresno State he helped move the writer's papers to the school. (Those papers were later transferred to Stanford University.)
"He was really interested in where you grew up and your family," Der Mugrdechian said. "He was charming and very welcoming."
That's exactly the picture that Avag Simonyan, the project manager of the museum, hopes people leave the museum recognizing Saroyan’s humanity, skill as writer and pride of his Armenian heritage.
"We want to remind people what a great writer he was," Der Mugrdechian said. "That's why the museum exists."
So what are Der Mugrdechian and Simonyan's favorite Saroyan's work? Der Mugrdechian loves "The Armenian & the Armenian" that features one of the most powerful passages about Armenian heritage:
"Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue."
For Simonyan it's "My Name is Aram," a book of short stories about Saroyan growing up in Fresno.
"It's full of wonderful, touching stories," Simonyan said.
Retreived from Visalia Times Delta.