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Halls of Fame:
They're the Greatest

By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Dead cockroach A departed pest finds a place in the sand. (Cockroach Hall of Fame)
The average person who happened to find himself in possession of 28 dead cockroaches dressed in costumes would probably just set them on the mantel and show them off to friends. But Michael Bohdan is no average person. When he found himself with this booty (one of the perks of judging a roach-dressing contest), he thought, "How can I let these beautiful cockroaches go to waste? I should share this great treasure with the world."

So he bought some display cases, put them in the window of his Pest Shop in Plano, Tex., and hung a sign: Cockroach Hall of Fame. And do people come to see the wonders of Marilyn Monroach, Elvis Roachley, and Bohdan's favorite, Liberoachi, dressed in tails and seated at a roach-size piano? You betcha.

"We're not the Smithsonian," the professional exterminator conceded. "But we get about 3,000 visitors a year."

The Burlesque Hall of Fame in Helendale, Calif., gets about 1,000 fewer than that, depending on how hot the weather gets, but it, too, is a labor of love, to honor former strippers. The International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum, in beautiful downtown Chattanooga, boasts at least 12,000 visitors a year to its displays of historic tow trucks and photos of men and women "who have made significant contributions to the towing and recovery industry."

Summer is the boom time for halls of fame. All over America people are visiting their friends and family and looking for something to do, or for a way to break the endless interstate journey across the fruited plain. And what better rest stop could there be than to pause in Seymour, Wis., at the Hamburger Hall of Fame, or – if you prefer – in Fairfield, Calif., at the Hot Dog Hall of Fame? Where else could you see more than 2,000 objects shaped like a hot dog?

Halls of fame are Americana at its plainest and purest. This is the real deal. You can take your 80 trillion air-conditioned square feet of stuffed mastodons and Hope Diamonds. Forget those Old Masters in snooty art galleries named after rich people. This is the people's art! Kitsch R Us. Americans revere fame, and they want to institutionalize even the ordinary so that it, and we, will last forever.

Halls of fame are "a populist self-portrait of the century's attitudes towards fame, with implications for understanding ideas in the United States about aging, success, time and, especially, memory," wrote Renny Pritikin of the Yerba Buena Gardens Center for the Arts near San Francisco. She curated an exhibit last year called "The Hall of Fame Hall of Fame," which featured about 50 of them. (The actual number of such halls is a subject of some debate. Hall of Fame Museums: A Reference Guide lists 274, while referring to another estimate of 3,000 that is attributed to a television report.) According to the guide, written by Victor J. Danilov, the number of halls has increased during the last decade, and many older ones have expanded.

"In ancient times you had to be a great warrior to be honored," says Irving Rein, professor of communications studies at Northwestern University and co-author of "High Visibility." "Now you can be a consultant. . . . A lot of this is about giving a sector credibility and not just a person, a way of giving long-lived permanence to a particular occupation or avocation."

A hot dog We're not sure what it is. (Hot Dog Hall of Fame)
Halls of fame can be found in a mammoth reproduction of a fish, in trailers, building lobbies, renovated goat sheds, doctors' offices and actual hallways. At the high end is the multi-million-dollar Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the elegant International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. At the other end is the simple but eloquent display case in the Montpelier, Vt., recreation department that enshrines the winners of the annual "rotten sneaker" contest. The best of the worst, in other words. In order to win, a sneaker should be smellable at 20 feet. It's called the Hall of Fumes. Admission is free.

This year's winner, by the way, is Brian Paton, 15, of Barre, Vt. "My mom makes me keep them outside on the porch," he said in the flush of victory. "They get wet, freeze, and then the toes curl up. The smell gets worse as they thaw out."

We honor Barbie dolls, poultry producers, dog mushers, pickle packers, Route 66, bulls, cowgirls, women bowlers, cars, quilters, jazz musicians, teachers, high school band directors, South Carolina police officers, fiddlers, clowns, miners and recreational vehicles.

We honor athletes more than anything else, with the possible exception of airplanes and aviators. There are 10 halls of fame just for baseball, nine for football. At least 17 states have their own sports halls of fame, often located in arenas or public universities. But there are also halls devoted to beach volleyball, biking, croquet, dog sledding, figure skating, Frisbee, lacrosse, marbles, shuffleboard and trapshooting. Jewish athletes are honored in several halls, and Polish, Italian, African American and Puerto Rican athletes have their own as well.

The oldest hall of fame, according to Danilov, is right here in Washington – Statuary Hall in the Capitol. There you will find a carved stone parade of American notables, many of them utterly unfamiliar. This town is also home to the Chess Hall of Fame and the National Jewish American Sports Hall of Fame, to be located in the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum as of Oct. 1. The Labor Hall of Fame is in the lobby of the Frances Perkins Building, 200 Constitution Ave. NW. It has its own answering machine.

Another nearby hall, the Poultry Hall of Fame in Beltsville, is not what it used to be. Maintained by the American Poultry Historical Society in the National Agricultural Library, the exhibit once featured attractions like an electric egg in addition to oil portraits of such poultry notables as Fred R. Beaudette (1897-1957), who developed a vaccine to control fowl pox, among other accomplishments. But the library needed the space, so now the hall of fame is just that: a hallway on the second floor lined with brass plaques.

Virginia boasts the National Jousting Hall of Fame, at Natural Chimney Park near Harrisonburg. It displays some armor, jousting rings and lances, and of course, the names of accomplished jousters. The state is also home to the United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association Hall of Fame (Petersburg), the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame (Portsmouth) and the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame (Richmond).

Some states have more halls of fame than others. California and New York, unsurprisingly, have more than a dozen each, but Alabama has almost as many. Talladega alone has six, all sports-related. In fact, they are mostly auto-sports-related: Motorsports, Racing, Quarter Midgets, Western Auto Mechanics and Karting. Wisconsin has another mother lode, showcasing clowns, Green Bay Packers, freshwater fish, paper, snowmobiles and aviation in addition to the aforementioned hamburgers.

Behind every hall of fame is a story – often one of enthusiasm and poignant devotion.

Take Dixie Evans, proprietor of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, also known as Exotic World. (Its T-shirt, emblazoned with a showgirl, reads: "Movers and Shakers of the World.") She tells her story with charming frankness, proud of her role in preserving a nearly dead art.

Evans, 72, was in burlesque from 1949 until 1962, traveling the circuit. She did a Marilyn Monroe act, and indeed will do an imitation for you at the drop of a spangle. But of course Marilyn committed suicide in 1962, and Evans's career kind of went south.

"It was bingo, overnight. No agent would talk to me," she says. "I went into a horrible depression. I was married to a prizefighter – he was the fifth-ranking contender for the middleweight championship. He also sold aluminum siding. He was very handsome – he looked like John Garfield. He wasn't really beat up in the face or anything."

She tried dyeing her hair black, but it didn't help. Then she met a stockbroker who got her a job doing public relations for a hotel in Bimini. After she ran out her string in the tropics, she moved to California, where her sister lived. She got a job as a practical nurse for elderly people.

"It was so depressing. The only way I got through it was by pretending I was rehearsing for a movie."

Then she heard that an old stripping pal, Jennie Lee, who had started a burlesque hall of fame on a goat farm in the desert, had breast cancer. "I came out with a couple of showgirls to visit," Evans recalled. When Lee died in 1990, Evans returned to help out and ended up taking over Exotic World. "It had gone tumbledy-rumbledy down," she recalls. "I remodeled all the goat sheds – all have wall-to-wall carpeting."

She lauds burlesque as a tonic for the average stiff, an unsung alternative to the halls of high culture. "It did provide a wealth of entertainment for the working class during the 1930s and '40s," she says. "It only cost 25 cents in the afternoon. Sometimes 35 cents for a cast of 60 people! . . . The working people did not want a plot to their show." They wanted dance teams, they wanted showgirls in skimpy costumes, they wanted strippers.

The exotic dancers immortalized in this museum include Josephine Baker and Mata Hari. They have Sally Rand's original fans, Gypsy Rose Lee's trunk of costumes from "For the Boys," plus a lot of hats and gloves. There's a skirt Evans used in her Marilyn acts, photographs of her, some "gorgeous gowns" that belonged to Sherry Champagne – and Sherry's ashes in an urn.

Once a year the aging strippers hold a reunion at Exotic World. At the last one, Tempest Storm, now nearing 70, did her striptease to great acclaim.

And whatever happened to Evans's husband, the boxer and aluminum siding salesman?

"We just sort of drifted apart. He had his own crowd. . . . There was too much drinking."

She's seen good times and bum times, as the song goes, and she's still here – in Helendale. Keeping the pink lights burning at the Burlesque Hall of Fame.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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