Soundings: Museum tells story of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ in Oregon

jdodge@theolympian.comJuly 23, 2013 

If your summer travels take you through Salem, Ore., I suggest you pay a visit to the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health.

Housed inside a refurbished section of the original 1883 mental health hospital, the museum takes an unabashed look at the good, the bad and the ugly of mental health care in Oregon over the past 130 years.

The museum is a no-holds-barred look at the patients, the staff and the therapies used at the hospital, enhanced by artifacts ranging from a surgical table and instruments used for some of the 135 brain surgeries, including lobotomies, performed at the hospital from 1947 to 1954, to an enormous silver pot used to cook soups made from ingredients grown in large quantities at the hospital farm.

The 2,500-square-foot museum has an entire room dedicated to the hospital’s role in the filming of the 1975 Academy Award winning movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the 1962 best-selling novel by Oregon counter-culture prankster Ken Kesey.

When no other West Coast mental hospital would, the Oregon State Hospital welcomed the film crew, which included co-producer Michael Douglas and actor Jack Nicholson, to film the movie on site, using some 90 patients and hospital staff in supporting roles.

The authentic film setting never would have happened without the support of the hospital superintendent, Dr. Dean K. Brooks, who supervised the aging, overcrowded hospital from 1955 through 1981. One of the museum’s 13 exhibit rooms is dedicated to Brooks, who made it his life work to advocate for the rights and human dignity of the mentally ill. “Find Fact, Not Fault” was his common refrain etched on the wall of the Brooks Room.

Brooks not only opened the hospital doors to the movie crew, he played the role of Dr. Jack Spivey, the psychiatrist in charge of the fictional hospital where patients are under the cold and calculating grip of Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher.

Fletcher returned to the hospital for the grand opening of the museum in 2012, joined by Brooks, 96, an ardent museum supporter.

Many of the exhibits in the museum were discovered stored haphazardly in the basements of the many hospital buildings spread over the 180-acre campus. It was a stroke of good fortune to find them, noted Kathryn Dysart, a member of the all-volunteer museum board.

The museum is patterned after the Glore Psychiatric Museum, which chronicles the nearly 140-year history of the St. Joseph State Hospital in Missouri. That museum is recognized as one of the 50 most unusual museums in the country. Who’s to say the Oregon State Hospital museum doesn’t belong on that list as well.

The Oregon museum has applied for accreditation from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a collection of museums and exhibits around the globe that speak to human tragedy and triumph. The Oregon museum seems deserving of membership in the coalition.

For museum hours, directions and other information, visit oshmuseum.org.

I had a chance to interview Brooks in May, and asked him about his initial impression of Kesey’s book.

“I was very much opposed to it,” he said. But his perception of the story Kesey wove about the evil forces of oppression and societal conformity changed over time, influenced in large part by a stage adaptation of the novel performed at the University of Oregon in the mid-1960s. The play featured drama professor Lute Jerstad in the lead role of rebellious hospital patient Randle McMurphy, played by Nicholson in the movie. Jerstad, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University who reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1963, was a friend of Brooks, himself an avid hiker and rock climber who once rappelled down the exterior of the hospital.

Brooks stopped viewing the book as an indictment of mental health hospitals and more as an allegorical tale of the abuses of institutional power and the toll exacted on those who don’t conform to that power. “It could be a bank, a school, the Army or a hospital where the story takes place,” he suggested to me.

Before opening the hospital doors to the “Cuckoo’s Nest” gang, Brooks sought the counsel of a patient’s committee he routinely met with to air grievances and hospital policies. The committee met with Douglas, too, Brooks said.

“The patients asked: If we’re in the movie, will we look like nuts? Douglas said: ‘No.’ Will we get paid? Douglas said: ‘Yes,’” Brooks recalled.

Formal approval to film the movie at the hospital was granted by then-Gov. Robert Sprague in March 1973.

“I’ve watched the movie a half-dozen times,” Brooks said in May. “All in all, I think it came out well.”

Six days after our conversation, Brooks died at his home, surrounded by family members. According to Dysart, I was the last journalist to talk to him. It was an interview I will never forget.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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