Les Paul, GuitarTown mold Waukesha’s music image

Waukesha’s love affair with Les Paul, whose work forever changed the sound of music, is about to deepen.

The city soon unveils an outdoor public art project downtown, in response to Gibson Guitar Corp.’s selection of Waukesha as the world’s eighth GuitarTown. (The others are Nashville, Hollywood, London, Orlando, Miami, Cleveland and Austin, Texas.)

Wisconsin artists embellished 10 fiberglass guitars, each 10 feet tall, and 20 other guitars that are of standard size and playable. The public unveiling is June 1.

That weekend’s activities will double as a 97th birthday party for the native son, who was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978, and the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame 10 years later.

The father of the electric guitar, amplified sound, multi-track and multi-layered recording equipment was born in Waukesha and is buried in the city’s Prairie Home Cemetery.

Still to come is an announcement of plans to reshape Waukesha County Museum and use the inventor’s life as a signature exhibit that also educates, inspires and draws travelers nationally.

“It will be on par with some attractions you might see in the (Wisconsin) Dells – not the flavor but the number of people we attract,” says Kirsten Lee Villegas, museum president and CEO.

BRC Imagination Arts of Burbank, Calif., in 2011 was hired to design the interactive exhibit. BRC’s credits include major tourist attractions, including NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois and Amsterdam’s Heineken Experience.

Kirsten refers to preliminary plans as “an exciting and bold vision” that will “use Les Paul’s story to help others explore their version of the American dream.”

She notes that Les Paul – Lester William Polsfuss, born June 9, 1915 –was raised in a single-parent household of modest means but made a positive and global impact. He lived in Waukesha until age 17.

“We are the only ones who can tell his hometown story,” Kirsten says, but “we’re not talking about putting artifacts behind glass. We want an immersive experience that involves both entertainment and scholarship” while embracing history, science and music.

In museum storage are more than 100 artifacts from Les Paul’s life, in addition to his mother’s personal photo albums. A slim representation of the holdings – such as the musician’s cement handprints – will be part of GuitarTown festivities.

A “sneak peek” of other items in this collection opens in June 2013 at the museum.

Fostering local music talent, Kirsten says, “will be a huge component of what we’re a part of” in the future. “We’re not going to be a music museum,” she explains, “but we will be a magnet for musicians, people who love music and people who teach music.”

Waukesha has at least eight live music venues. Free, outdoor Friday Night Live performances are a popular June to October offering.

The museum’s preliminary plans won’t be made public until after an economic feasibility study, but Kirsten says the concepts have the blessing of son Rusty Paul and the Les Paul Foundation.

“He left a big plate with a lot of food on it,” Rusty says, of his father, who died of pneumonia in 2009, “and he always wanted to do more.”

Proceeds from an upcoming auction of Les Paul items in California, he notes, will help finance his father’s foundation but “we’ve kept the most important things” for key museums, including Waukesha’s.

GuitarTown action involves free entertainment on six outdoor stages June 1-2. Performers include 70-year-old Rusty and Sam Llanas, a founder of the BoDeans. The Les Paul Trio, whose Monday night shows are standard fare at Manhattan’s Iridium Jazz Club, performs with Richie Furay, formerly with Buffalo Springfield.

Rusty also will chat with visitors at the 500-square-foot granite memorial that is his father’s burial site at Prairie Home Cemetery.

For more about Waukesha area tourism: www.visitwaukesha.org, 800-366-8474. See and bid on the artsy guitars at www.waukeshaguitartown.org, which is also where all GuitarTown events are listed.

“Les Paul: Guitar Wizard” by Bob Jacobson of Madison is a new Wisconsin Historical Society Press book that is written for children. It is part of the Badger Biographies Series, and the author will be in Waukesha for book signings June 1-2, plus a luncheon talk (reservations required).

For more about the book: www.wisconsinhistory.org. Book cost is $12.95.

For more about the Les Paul Foundation, New York: www.lespaulfoundation.org, 212-687-2929.

For more about the Iridium Jazz Club, which bills itself as “The House that Les Paul Built” at 160 Broadway, New York: www.theiridium.com, 212-582-2121. Reservations are advised; admission depends upon the lineup but typically ranges from $35-$65.

Les Paul performed here weekly, from 1996 until his death. Today, some of music’s best-known guitarists – Jeff Beck to (Milwaukee native) Steve Miller – sit in with the Les Paul Trio.

For now, the best Wisconsin exhibit of Les Paul’s life is at Discovery World, where “Les Paul’s House of Sound” opened four years ago and follows his life from childhood to stardom.

The exhibit at 500 N. Harbor Dr., Milwaukee, is in place indefinitely. For more: www.discoveryworld.org, 414-765-9966.

In New Jersey, the Mahwah Museum Society embraces Les Paul because he lived there 50-plus years, and an extensive exhibit includes the re-creation of his performance studio.

For more: www.mahwahmuseum.org, 201-512-0099.