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Dayton: The Memphis Belle & More

See the legendary World War II aircraft at the National Museum of the United States Air Force and other new attractions this summer.

Inside a massive restoration hangar at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, bright overhead lights bounce off the Memphis Belle’s nearly 104-foot-long wingspan as former aircraft mechanics, restoration craftsmen and skilled volunteers painstakingly return the legendary Flying Fortress to its World War II look.

It’s early spring, several weeks before the plane’s May 17, 2018, public unveiling at the museum — exactly 75 years after the bomber’s 25th and final mission — and the 13-year restoration effort is nearing a landing. Workers have spent countless hours repairing, cleaning and painting the aircraft to ensure every last detail of its appearance is historically accurate.

But the project wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without one priceless resource used as reference: Academy Award-winning director William Wyler’s 1944 War Department color documentary, “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.” Wyler and his team of cameramen climbed aboard the bomber and risked their own lives to capture American history as it happened. More than 11 hours of footage that didn’t make it into the film proved vital to the restoration, according to Jeff Duford, lead curator of the Memphis Belle project. 

“We couldn’t have possibly restored it accurately without these outtakes,” he says. “We’ve gone through them, literally, frame by frame.”

The newly restored Memphis Belle is now on display alongside rare archival footage from Wyler’s 1944 film, his uniform, a digitally animated map showing the World War II strategic bombardment campaign, two Medals of Honor and other artifacts tied to the Flying Fortress and its crew.

“The Memphis Belle is one of our great national treasures,” says Duford. “It reflects who we are as Americans: our spirit, our willingness to sacrifice for our country and for the greater good. These soldiers’ service was critical in defeating Nazi Germany, but their sacrifice was equally as high.”

Following World War II, the aircraft was sent to Memphis, where it was displayed at a National Guard armory for years, but the elements and souvenir hunters took their toll. The airplane had been outside for about three decades when a group called the Memphis Belle Memorial Association was formed.

That organization protected the aircraft with a tent-like covering, but the plane still needed serious work. So, in 2005 the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and the Memphis Belle Memorial Association decided to transport the plane to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton for restoration and, ultimately, public display.

“[The Memphis Belle Memorial Association] collected photographs and artifacts over the years,” says Duford, “and they’ve been really great about continuing to support the restoration.”

The Memphis Belle came to represent American resilience after it completed 25 missions over Europe during World War II. In 1943, only about one in four bomber crewmen achieved that milestone. After completing its 25th mission, the Memphis Belle embarked on a more benign one: flying across the country to help sell war bonds. The famous bomber — affectionately named for pilot Robert Morgan’s Memphis girlfriend, Margaret Polk — was the perfect plane for such a job, raising money and morale along the way.

“There was this fantastic nose art,” says Duford. “It’s the girl back home. It’s the reason those men were fighting and dying.” 1100 Spaatz St., Wright-Patterson Air Force Base 45433, 937/255-3286, nationalmuseum.af.mil

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Yousuf Karsh Portrait of Joan Crawford
Famous Faces 

Yousuf Karsh isn’t a household name, but his photographs are some of the most memorable images of our time. This summer, the photographer’s black-and-white works from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will be on display at the Dayton Art Institute during “Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits,” running June 23 through Sept. 16.

“This is a classic photo show of 48 portraits of some of the most iconic [20th-century figures],” explains Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth, assistant curator at the Dayton Art Institute. “Many of these photos are what everyone thinks of when they think of these people.”

Born in Armenia in 1908, Karsh escaped persecution, fleeing to Canada in 1925. By the 1930s, Karsh’s star was rising, and over a career spanning six decades, he photographed international figures ranging from Albert Einstein and Walt Disney to Grace Kelly and Winston Churchill.

“With his scowl and his hand on his hip, this is the first image I think of when I think of Winston Churchill,” says Siegwarth, adding that Karsh had a tremendous ability to humanize celebrities — to capture their true character. “These images resonate with people young and old, creating a very robust and exciting exhibition.” 456 Belmonte Park N., Dayton 45405, 937/223-4278, daytonartinstitute.org

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Levitt Pavilion rendering
Summer Sounds

Downtown Dayton has seen a resurgence in recent years with new attractions and development. This summer, Dave Hall Plaza — a once-fading green space in the heart of the city — will add to that momentum with a new outdoor concert venue: Levitt Pavilion Dayton.

“The whole purpose of Levitt {Pavilion] is to take an underutilized part of a city, and then use music to bolster the community and foster relationships between those that normally wouldn’t hang out together,” explains Kevin Deal, vice chair of Friends of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton, which helped bring the project to fruition. “It’s a proven model.”

The new concert space is part of a national network of Levitt venues. The Levitt Foundation — a California-based organization devoted to transforming neglected outdoor spaces into free live music venues — has bolstered cities from Los Angeles to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Westport, Connecticut. 

Fifty free concerts will be presented at the Dayton stage each year, weather permitting, with talent ranging from regional to national acts. The city was one of several Ohio communities vying for the venue.

“The Levitt circuit is known as a stepping stone for musical acts,” says Deal. “There are many former Levitt acts that have gone on to win Grammys. It’s a coup this is coming to Dayton.” Visit website for more information about concerts. 36 S. Main St., Dayton 45402, 937/333-2607, levittdayton.org

(Credit: Yousuf Karsh: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Estrellita Karsh in Memory of Yousuf Karsh)

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