12.20.2008

Star Attraction

Now that Mark had joined us, there were four of us to agree on what marvel to visit next and so on Saturday after a small amount of hemming and hawing, we settled on a little known quantity called The Star Museum located in nearby Abingdon, Virginia.

The Star Museum touts itself as a world class collection of celebrity memorabilia, which it certainly is. But in this day and age of ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe display cases, e-bay auctions and celebrity branding, the mere ownership of memorabilia isn't interesting to me in and of itself. No, what compelled me to visit the Star Museum were the short videos I'd found on the Internet which featured collector/curator Robert Wiesfeld describing various items from the collection. It was obvious from what I saw that it was the mind behind the museum that made it well worth visiting.
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The scent of a home run flared in my nostrils when I called ahead to see if they'd be open and the friendly and animated woman on the other end of the line told me sheepishly, "Just so you know, dear, we have an admission fee." I could tell she'd had to hesitantly defend the charge to ungrateful guests before. "Well," I said, "as long as we're talking less than $500 a pop, I think we can swing it." It was only a tick before she replied, "I think we can get you in for a tad under $500." She added that they'd be happy to stay around and wait for us, if we needed them to. "We can be real flexible" she chirped.

As we arrived in Abingdon that afternoon, it was much like driving onto the set if a1940s movie which took place in an old-fashioned eastern U.S. town - graceful turn of the century columns (think plantation), manicured lawns and tasteful holiday decorations. The whole place was spotlessly clean and downright wholesome. Inconspicuous due to it's lack of garish roadside attraction advertising, we drove right by the Star museum on our first pass through town, but quickly looped back and parked on the street where you live.

As soon as we entered the door we encountered the gracious woman I'd spoken with on the phone sitting at the front desk, and it turned out she was Robert's mother Martha Wiesfeld. Martha is what I'd call a handsome woman and it becomes obvious quickly that she's sharp as a tack and ferociously friendly. While it didn't surprise me to learn of it, I was very impressed to find she'd decided to buy the local newspaper in 1976 and had proceeded to run it for some 30-odd years, teaching herself the business as she went along. Several years ago, she retired and converted the quaint old building that had housed the paper into a showcase for the extraordinary collection of celebrity memorabilia her son Robert had amassed over the years. In talking with both Martha and Robert, it became exceedingly clear that the primary and overriding reason the two of them had taken on the immense challenge of managing a museum was simply to be able to share the magic of what Robert had collected with other people. And that generosity informs everything at the Star, especially the deliciously intimate tours that Robert gives the guests.

After settling up with Martha on our admission (it did come in a tad under $500, by the way), we joined Robert and two other guests at the entrance to the museum where they had just begun a tour.

From the very first sentence, Robert had me completely wrapped around his little finger. He affects the lilting purr of an inveterate storyteller, directing your attention first here and then succinctly there, never letting your eyes veer from the prize. I was held steadily in thrall by the likes of Joan Crawford's fabulous red plumed hat, Errol Flynn's sporty swim trunks and Eartha Kitt's feathered showgirl bra (from her days performing at Dietrich's dyke club in New York, no less!). Robert nourished us with a steady diet of fascinating snippets and morsels as we moved from display to display, usually only artfully hinting when it came to addressing the well known scandal that was often associated with an item.

In fact, one of the things that impressed me most about Robert's narrative ability is his ease in speaking on several levels at once. I know you've experienced what I'm talking about if you're a Bugs Bunny fan. Haven't you been amazed at the risque nuances you now perceive as an adult in what you once thought was purely a children's cartoon? For example, Robert can toss off a phrase such as "in like Flynn" in a way that makes a curt nod to it's prurient content, but without cataloguing all the gory details. In a different day and age, I believe it was called "good manners".
Our tour was absolutely fascinating. Robert's collection is wide ranging - from Lillian Russell to Ann Margaret to Madonna, but I particularly appreciated his focus on stars from the era of glamour. Seeing a huge picture hat covered with hand styled ostrich plumes worn by Mae West was truly a thrill for me. Anything Greta Garbo or Gloria Swanson instantly riveted my attention. The thing I think I was most smitten with, though, was a white turban covered with huge faceted black gems that had been made by fashion designer Adrian for the splendid actress Myrna Loy to wear. Adrian was the creator of the sparkly pink confection worn by Billie Burke as Glinda in the 1938 movie version of the Wizard of Oz and he will always and forever be a god in my doctrine for that small act alone. And to see something he himself had made for an actress I like so well...I was genuinely awe stricken. I'm telling you - I had a lump in my throat!
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After the tour, we stood around chatting with Robert and Martha for a good half hour or so. Martha regaled us with tales of spreading picnic blankets on her front lawn in the 50s so that actors visiting the nearby Barter Theater (Barter because the local farmers could bring produce to use as admission in lieu of money) could come and rehearse their lines and relax while she served them Kool-Aid and home baked cookies. In my Frank Capraesque reenvisioning of the scene, little Robert sits rapt on the lawn with wide, admiring eyes, the seedling of his fascination with celebrity just beginning to grow. Just another idyllic day in Abingdon! Maybe they put something in the water there that gives a Jimmy Stewart quality to everything.

As much fun as I had ogling all the tantalizing trinkets Robert showed us, by the time we made our hesitant preparations to leave it was exceedingly clear what it is that makes the Star Museum so special. I've been to a huge number of museums and displays and roadside attractions over the years and what I've found that makes a place worth visiting more than anything else is the people that make it. And if you're very lucky, you get to engage with the minds, not just the matter, of a place. For myself, I've never experienced as great a joy in seeing a thing as I have in beginning to understand who made it.

After leaving the Star Museum, we wandered down the picturesque little street peering in windows and looking for a place to have some dinner and in the space of less than two hours, I had received the nicest compliment I think I've ever gotten ("You make my eyes happy!") and encountered the least pretentious fruit and cheese plate (yes that's cottage cheese) I've ever been served.
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Chalk up another amazing day. Dang! There's hardly room left on the wall for another tally mark!

1 comment:

starmuse said...

Dear Shiree Schade:
You are a doll of depth and keen observation, but we knew that. I cannot thank you enough for your Pink Hair presentation of Star Museum.
Just so folks can contact me, I can be reached via email at star@eva.org. Hope you yourself will email me, so I have your address re my weekly radio show.
You are fatally cool and extremely perceptive; and it was wonderful meeting folks still tied to the beauty of Bohemia, and the unhomogenized hole-in-the-wall uniqueness which makes great places to visit.
Have big plans coming up, so trust you'll come back to Abingdon---when you write, I'll elaborate.
Anyway, I hope to see you again; if not here, amidst the bats of Austin---or on the road again.
I appreciate you. Beneath the pink hair and wildest shoes, lies a heart of grand porportions. So I hope I'm the first valentine to say: I love you, Pink Hair.

Best beyond The Beyond,
Robert Weisfeld
Star Museum