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Small town plans Hughes museum

RENO, Nev. — Howard Hughes could have tied the knot with the Hollywood glamour girl anywhere. But the billionaire's obsession with privacy prompted him to marry actress Jean Peters in the remote mining town of Tonopah 50 years ago last month.

After failing in an effort to save the improbable site of the secret Jan. 12, 1957, wedding — the L&L Motel — a group of Tonopah residents has announced plans to commemorate the event by building a life-size statue of the couple.

The group led by Tonopah businessman Bob Perchetti also is pursuing plans to open a Howard Hughes Museum and Wedding Chapel across the street from the motel that was razed about 18 months ago.

The plans are designed not only to recognize Hughes, but to help draw tourists to the struggling town of 2,800 surrounded by stark mountains and sage brush on U.S. Highway 95 about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, more than a 200-mile drive in either direction.

"There's a mystique about Howard Hughes, just like there is about Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley," said Perchetti, chairman of the town's mural and monument committee. "People still find him fascinating, and we think our plans would be a natural."

The dilapidated, shuttered L&L was demolished after the town board concluded it would be too expensive to restore in the summer of 2005.

Perchetti had sought to turn the room where the wedding took place and office below into the Hughes museum and wedding chapel. Now, he's eyeing an old brick building across the street as a possible site for the project.

"It's not a lost deal. It's still a dream of mine to open the museum and wedding chapel," said Perchetti, former director of the Tonopah Convention Center and a former member of the Nevada Tourism Commission.

The museum would feature exhibits on the mysterious wedding and Hughes' role in Nevada history.

Hughes and Peters registered for the marriage license under fictitious names and got married at the L&L to avoid publicity.

The couple flew in and out of Tonopah that day from Southern California, with the entire stay lasting about two hours. Only a handful of Hughes' aides knew about it, and the news media didn't learn about it until months later.

"The wedding was very much in character for Hughes," state archivist Guy Rocha said. "The older he got, the less he wanted attention and glamour and the more he wanted to operate behind a veil.

"Tonopah was a wonderful place not to be scrutinized. That's a big event in the history of Tonopah and people in Tonopah still talk about it," Rocha added.

Afterward, Hughes' mental condition deteriorated, and both he and Peters vanished from public view. Except for a brief period, they lived apart.

Peters appeared in 19 films with such stars as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Ray Milland and Spencer Tracy. She left Hollywood after marrying Hughes, who was 21 years her senior.

In 1970, Peters filed for divorce. It was Hughes' second and final marriage and Peters' second of three marriages. Hughes died in 1976 at age 70, and she died in 2000 at age 73.

While holed up at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas from 1966 to 1970, Hughes bought seven casinos and scores of mines in Nevada. He helped transform Las Vegas from a mob-dominated gambling town to a corporate-owned modern resort destination.

Before becoming the "invisible man" in Nevada, Hughes was a movie producer, record-setting aviator, Trans World Airlines owner and major defense contractor.

While the L&L site is being considered for a new firehouse, Perchetti said, he also hopes to locate the statue there sometime in the next couple of years.

"It'll be a life-size statue of Howard Hughes and Jean Peters looking into each other's eyes and appearing as they did when they got married," Perchetti said. "We think it's finally time to recognize Howard Hughes in Tonopah."