The Smithsonian, Trying to Stay Cool and Collected
How American History Competes for Showbiz Treasures

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Dorothy's ruby slippers. Kermit the Frog. Archie Bunker's chair. As the curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's entertainment collection, Dwight Blocker Bowers oversees some of the institution's signature items. But right now, weaving through a maze of metal cabinets in a storage room in the depths of the museum, Bowers wants to talk about Dustin Hoffman's fake breasts.

"Ooh, I do have to show you these," Bowers says as he grabs a small yellow box. Inside, looking up at us, are the jiggly, nippled prostheses that Hoffman wore for his cross-dressing role in the 1982 film "Tootsie." "We're very interested in gender and how it plays out in entertainment."

Despite the heft of the Smithsonian Institution's name, Bowers is an underdog in the game of procuring entertainment memorabilia. He jostles with eBay, Christie's and Sotheby's auction houses, Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Cafe -- all companies in the "rabid collectors market" that didn't exist 20 years ago, Bowers says. Back then, auction houses didn't sell lowbrow items like pop culture ephemera.

"We are the Blanche DuBois of museums," he says. "We depend on the kindness of strangers."

The curators only purchase items "once in two blue moons." Bowers recalls a Ginger Rogers costume from the 1936 film "Follow the Fleet" that he got for $12,000, but only after it didn't sell for its auction starting price of $15,000.

He looks for memorabilia that helps explain "the fabric of American culture," and he has a long wish list of pop culture artifacts for the museum's collection, all of which are emblematic of the difficulty of his quest:

- The Vitameatavegamin bottle from "I Love Lucy" is at the Lucy-Desi Museum in Jamestown, N.Y., owned by Lucille Ball's relatives. (It's only a replica, a museum spokeswoman says, the original is lost or no longer exists.)

- The Maltese Falcon statuette from the 1941 film was on the second floor of a San Francisco restaurant called John's Grill until it was stolen in February.

- The tight white suit John Travolta wore in "Saturday Night Fever" belonged to late film critic Gene Siskel, but it has since been sold to an anonymous private collector.

The museum is closed for renovations until next year, but Bowers's work continues. His most recent acquisitions include a card catalogue of jokes by comedian Phyllis Diller. (His favorite: "I told my mother-in-law to act her age, so she died.")

Bowers, a stout, mustachioed 52-year-old, wears a pair of white cotton gloves as he peruses the collection. As a child in West Virginia, he played show tunes on the family piano and preferred watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films to TV sitcoms. Bowers doesn't rely on gut instinct alone to decide which items the museum should acquire. Every object worth more than $5,000 (which is almost everything) must be voted on by a committee of American History Museum curators. In eight years, Bowers says he has yet to have a proposal denied.

Lately, Bowers has been working with Los Angeles agent B. Harlan Boll, hoping to get donations from his clients, including Carol Channing (her Broadway "Lorelei" dress), Florence Henderson ("Brady Bunch" props) and Angela Lansbury (the "Murder, She Wrote" typewriter).

Boll says his clients are "always honored to be approached by the Smithsonian" but "are not always willing to surrender the item." Take client Barbara Eden, star of "I Dream of Jeannie," who Boll says is not yet ready to part with her genie bottle.

Things likely would be different if the museum threw some cash around. That's how it is for Don Bernstine, the Orlando-based manager of acquisitions for the Hard Rock Cafe chain, who oversees a collection of about 70,000 music-related objects worth $45 million. (The American History Museum owns 94,000 entertainment artifacts but doesn't assign values to them.) Bernstine, who has been with the company for about five years, wouldn't specify his budget for memorabilia purchases, only that "it's enough."

Bernstine's wish list? Just two things: items from Led Zeppelin and Metallica. (He has had dinner with Jimmy Page multiple times to try to get Zeppelin gear, but Page is "hanging on to his legacy," Bernstine says.) Everything else -- guitars from Black Sabbath, stage clothes from the Beatles and the Ramones -- is in Hard Rock's possession.

"It's like Christmas every day," Bernstine says of his job. "You just want to run to the tree and rip open the presents."

Not surprisingly, the best time to get big-name celebrities to fork over the goods is when said celebs are promoting a new movie or album or DVD. Think: Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" donation of autographed boxing gloves and other costumes last December tied to "Rocky Balboa," and Bruce Willis's gift of a shirt, timed to "Live Free or Die Hard" in June, both to the American History Museum. The Hard Rock Cafe is awaiting the donation of a Queen guitar in London tied to a new DVD.

A Planet Hollywood spokeswoman declined interview requests, but the company has been collecting memorabilia over the past year from the horror film "The Hitcher," "The Condemned," a thriller starring Steve "Stone Cold" Austin and the kids' movie "Bratz." They also reportedly own James Bond artifacts, such as a bikini from "Dr. No," "The Blues Brothers" memorabilia and Charlton Heston's loin cloth from "Planet of the Apes."

Bowers doesn't like to think of donation ceremonies as publicity stunts. "It would in many ways cheapen the artifact," he says. "And would also make its longevity and meaning to the American public slightly different because it would be for that moment."

Not everyone at the museum agrees: American History Museum spokeswoman Valeska Hilbig says ceremonies with celebrities help publicize the museum's work and the collections they acquire.

Willis donated his character John McClane's grubby undershirt and other "Die Hard" gear at a media-packed event.

"I think the ['Wizard of Oz'] ruby slippers are far cooler than this shirt and badge here," Willis said. "But it's an honor to be included."

And how does the fake-blood-covered shirt fit in with the museum's other pop treasures?

Bowers wants to show it next to Harrison Ford's costume from "Indiana Jones" and Sigourney Weaver's from "Alien" as part of an exhibition on the evolution of action heroes. He might even incorporate westerns, which also deal with heroes battling seemingly insurmountable forces.

Back in the storage room, surrounded by rows of cabinets jammed with his hard-won treasures, Bowers says that the public tends to have an emotional connection to the collection before any kind of intellectual response.

"They feel a sense of ownership," he says. "I wish our audience would think about the material to be sure, but I'm very interested in seeing the tear in their eye too."

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