It was well above 100 degrees the afternoon I visited the William Saroyan House Museum a couple blocks from where I grew up.
Sweat poured from electricians and carpenters racing against a tight deadline to transform the 1,228 square-foot home built by Oscar Spano in 1964 into a suitable tribute to the literary giant.
The museum’s opening is set for Friday, Aug. 31, on what would have been the 110th birthday of the Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner.
I was there because, like many people around the world, I admire the humanity of Saroyan’s writing. And his zest for life.
“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough,” he wrote in the preface to “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”
How Did You Present a Life This Big in a Small House?
I was there, too, because I wanted to see how this modest tract home at 2729 W. Griffith Way— one of two side-by-side Spanos houses Saroyan owned — could be transformed into a museum worthy of his name.
Understand: I know the layouts of these houses like the back of my hand. My friends lived in them. I lived in a slightly bigger one with my parents, three brothers, and two sisters while going to Cooper Junior High and then Fresno High School.
My only brush with Saroyan — other than seeing him ride his bicycle in the neighborhood — was once being hired, along with the Piombino brothers, who lived behind the now museum house, to weed the overgrown backyard and prune his fruit trees.
How could there be enough room to present Saroyan and his work (book covers, manuscripts, paintings, memorabilia) and have room for visitors?
Well, this isn’t a museum for the masses. Not at all at once, anyway. Capacity is 10 guests at a time, and you must reserve a spot ahead of time to get inside.
Technology to the Rescue
Bundles and bundles of electronic cables offered a clue about the vision of the museum’s backers.
“How many miles of wire do you have there?” I asked one of the workers.
“Enough to get back to Armenia,” he answered, laughing.
When it opens, the museum will be high-tech. A Saroyan hologram will speak to visitors. And someday, if all goes well, advances in artificial intelligence will allow the Saroyan hologram to answer questions from visitors, said Hakob Hakobyan, CEO of the Renaissance Cultural and Intellectual Foundation.
More Than $2 Million Spent on the Project
The foundation started by Armenian media mogul Arthur Janibekyan bought the house in late 2015 and, according to Hakobyan, has poured more than $2 million into the project “thanks to our friends in Los Angeles and Fresno.”
In addition to the hologram, special lighting and sound systems are designed to enhance the visitor experience and showcase Saroyan’s artistic brilliance.
“This will be the second birth of Saroyan as a man and a writer,” Hakobyan said. “I think we really need to hear his voice. What he wrote about people, about kindness, about what he saw in the world. Those things very much have meaning today.”
Hakobyan is of the mind that Saroyan’s writing is on par with John Steinbeck’s and Ernest Hemingway’s. This museum, he said, will spark a resurgence of interest in Saroyan’s books and potentially elevate his status.
Room Dedicated to Research
Barlow Der Mugrdechian, the coordinator of the Armenian Studies Program at Fresno State, was our tour guide inside the home.
He pointed out where Saroyan’s books, art, and belongings would be displayed. One room is a dedicated research space for students, writers or anyone else interested in learning more about Saroyan.
“In his original will, he had left the homes to be places where writers from throughout the world could come and work as he did,” Der Mugrdechian said. “So, this is a way of honoring his wishes.”
Take note: Friday’s grand opening and Saroyan’s 110th birthday celebration is at the Fresno State Satellite Student Union, beginning at 7 p.m. — not at the house on West Griffith Way.
There is no charge to attend, but you must register in advance.