Step Right Up, Folks! Get Your Relics Here
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Are you the kind of person who longs to own a shrunken head? Or two stuffed squirrels toting shotguns? An item purporting to be Amelia Earhart's mummified finger? What about the world's largest rat? Or the world's largest ball made entirely of ties?
On Monday evening at Richard Opfer Auctioneering in Timonium, these items -- and hundreds of other freak-show curiosities -- will go on the block.
The sell-off will also be something of a wake, marking the demise of Baltimore's American Dime Museum, and the unique slice of Americana it represents. Wildly popular in the late 1800s, and the precursor to the traveling sideshows of the early 20th century, dime shows -- so called for the original cost of admission -- all but disappeared from American popular culture long ago. Dick Horne (the current director) and a partner, John Taylor, revived the concept here in Baltimore seven years ago. But for financial reasons, Horne closed the doors on Dec. 1. And now it's time for the inventory to go.
"There are just a whole lot of things that are more important in this day and age," Horne says. "Still, it's an important thing that has just vanished."
Horne, 65, is the sole owner now, Taylor having taken some of his collection of sideshow items and turned them into a "Palace of Wonders" exhibit at Showbar in Washington. Horne tried to close the museum more than a year ago, announcing that he would shut down in December 2005. The final weekend, lines snaked down the block, and regulars begged Horne to stay open. He gave in, and ran it -- mostly for groups and tours, with limited hours -- for one more year, paying the bills largely out of his own pocket. This time he just closed, with little fanfare. The phone has rung with more pleading, but there is no turning back.
"I think I'll go to the auction and cry," says Peter Excho. Excho is an artist who has volunteered at the museum for the last few years, as its neighborhood sagged and the possibility of closure seemed constant. "I just didn't want to see it go," he says.
The museum is housed in an old rowhouse on Maryland Avenue, with no heat and rotting carpet, a glass case that contains a mummy and that doubles as a table for the telephone and toolbox (and, often, a place for Booger the cat to sleep). It's a cramped, cluttered, musty place, where visitors were greeted outside on the walk by a stuffed bear wearing a Knights of Columbus sash and inside by a sign promising "a world where the strange is typical, the bizarre happens every day and the amazing is the least you should expect!"
It's the classic pitch from the old-time carnival sideshows -- and a call of nature for some, including John Waters, the legendarily eccentric film director and Baltimore native who calls himself a "carny" at heart.
"I liked things like the person who put a nail up his nose," says Waters, who plans to bid on some items. "I was obsessed by that stuff. When I go to the Dime Museum, I just relive my past. So I'm very sorry to see it go. It's a loss for tourism in Baltimore."
When the museum opened, in 1999, the block was a funky haven for antique shops. Van Smith -- the costume designer on Waters's films -- ran one next door, and he introduced Waters and Horne. (Smith died last year.) Now, Horne has transitional housing for recovering drug addicts on one side and vacant buildings on the other. The neighborhood is called the Station North Arts and Entertainment District (it's near Penn Station) -- and if you go one block over, to Charles Street, there are still artsy shops and bars -- but Horne's little slice of it has fallen by the wayside.
"There was all this creative craziness on this block and it was unique," he says. "It was very different. Now, there's really nothing left but me."
As he looks around his shop, Horne is resigned to a life without the squirrel riding on an alligator or the antique cannon he coveted for years, and finally bought from another dealer. The items are all tagged now, with white stickers and lot numbers. Excho is painting a goodbye sign for the preview (the museum will be open from noon to 5 p.m. today and 1 to 5 p.m. tomorrow; the items themselves will not be transferred to the auction house but will be displayed on a video screen there). The auction begins at 5 p.m. Monday, and bidders can participate over the Internet through eBay.
Wandering through the place is an exercise in suspended disbelief. Take Lot 105, for example. Called "Lincoln's Last Movement," it is -- according to its accompanying info -- fecal matter that an avaricious usher at Ford's Theatre tried to pass off as a last remnant of President Lincoln's life. (He was caught out -- again according to the accompanying info -- because a scientific analysis detected Necco wafers in the substance, and that wasn't something the president had eaten.)
Then there's Earhart's finger, which is described as a souvenir kept by the cannibals who saw her "fall out of the sky" in the South Pacific, then decided to eat her. It's one of several items in the shop that Horne -- an artist who spent years creating mummies and other items to sell to sideshows -- made himself, then composed the saga to go with it.
What will the finger fetch at auction? Horne has no idea. There are a few items he thinks will certainly sell for decent money. The automated monkey, for example, will probably fetch him about $500. And the Peruvian Amazon mummy might bring in 10 times that.
As for the rest of the stuff, Opfer Auctioneering has put ballpark values on it, but "this just isn't anything you can predict," Horne says. How much will one pay for a wax head? A two-headed china doll? An antique tattooing machine?
Horne just smiles mysteriously. "People," he explains later, "still like to be fooled."