The Smithsonian, Trying to Stay Cool and Collected
How American History Competes for Showbiz Treasures
Sunday, October 7, 2007; Page R05
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).