Mark Arax, who’s a journalist and author, says he remembers when William Saroyan would come over to his grandfather’s house in Fresno for dinner. And when he finally got a driver’s license, he recalls picking Saroyan up at his home on Griffith Way for those dinners.
“He kept the grass really high," he says. "It was full of dandelions and mint. The dandelions he harvested for his salad, the mint he harvested for his tea. You’d walk in and the tea kettle was always kind of whistling, he just drank a lot of tea throughout the day. There in the middle of the room was this table and on top of the table was a royal typewriter and he actually wrote standing up.”
But that version of Saroyan’s home only lives in Arax’s memory. The home on 2729 W Griffith Way will open as a museum that chronicles Saroyan’s life and his work.
Saroyan is an American-Armenian writer who's won a Pulitzer and Academy Award. He was born in Fresno and has written dozens of plays, novels, poems and short stories. His work has been translated into various languages and celebrated around the globe.
He spent the last years of his life at the home in Fresno and died in 1981.
Arax describes Saroyan's work as unconventional but argues it’s even more relevant today.
“It’s almost like he cut a vein and it just started bleeding," Arax says. "It just came out and it came out with all the brilliance, beauty and sloppiness that, that happens. So there was kind of a free flow to his stuff and it’s almost when you read him, it’s almost like godly, some hole has opened up in the heavens and the voice of God is coming down and telling you about life.”
A company in Armenia, Renaissance Cultural and Intellectual Foundation, bought the house with intentions of turning the home into a museum. After months of construction, the museum is set to open on Aug. 31, what would be Saroyan’s 110th birthday.
"It was the house where he spent his last 17 years," says Avag Simonyan, director of the foundation. "This house is a historical preservation for Fresno city.”
Simonyan said museum-goers will be able to read, listen, see and hear many of Saroyan’s published works. There will also be a research center for the public to use, he says, and even a hologram of Saroyan.
“You will be able to see William Saroyan’s hologram there, sitting speaking, telling you about his stories,” Simonyan says.
The futuristic video of Saroyan will also be accompanied by many other digital archives and graphics of his art. Simonyan says this is the only museum in the world dedicated to Saroyan, and it’s important for them to include as much of Saroyan’s art as possible.
“And this is important for us because he was born here, he died here, this is his city," Simonyan says. "Fresno is his city and that’s why we decided to start in this city and turn this museum here.”
Barlow DerMugrdechian, a coordinator for the Armenian studies program at Fresno State, says Saroyan represents Fresno and his work is relatable to many in the San Joaquin Valley.
“His writings reflect both his experience as an Armenian and what the Armenians went through and also I think reflects again a broader immigrant experience," DerMugrdechian says. "So I think for that reason his works are important to read to get a perspective.”
DerMugrdechian says Saroyan was best known for his short stories and many of them are in the perspective of young people and talk about his identity as an Armenian.
“Well I think his initial works 'My name is Aram' was really the initial work that really probably brought him a lot of fame as a book of short stories and about Fresno," he says. "And then 'The Human Comedy' is another one. So these are the early works but there’s so many other works that people could read that can introduce them to Saroyan.”
DerMugrdechian says Saroyan even has more unpublished work than published. He says those archives are kept at the Stanford University Library.
Recently, DerMugrdechian says, it’s been discovered that Saroyan actually wanted his home in Fresno to be turned into a place where people can come and be inspired by his work.
“He had in his original will that he did want his house converted to be a place that writers can come to and be inspired by him," he says. "That for many reasons was not realized until the recent acquisition of the home, conversion and opening now on Aug. 31.”
Even though Arax won’t ever be able to knock on Saroyan’s door again and hear his tea kettle whistling, he says he’s excited to visit the museum.
“I mean I don’t think people know much about Saroyan so I think all of it would come as a surprise," Arax says. "You know they saw this guy ridding on his bike furiously through town. It’d be hot and he’d be dressed in a jacket with a hat on and you’d say ‘Who’s that crazy guy peddling like that?’ That was our bard.”
The museum’s opening ceremony will be on Friday at the Satellite Student Union at Fresno State. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the program starts at 7. To register for the free event go to saroyanhouse.com.
The Saroyan House will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.