Gelinas, who, when not acting as curator, owns a successful T-shirt printing business, started a website 20 years ago as a way for locals to share Valley history and experiences. Soon, interested readers began sending the area native photographs of and other artifacts pertaining to Valley history. Suddenly in need of a place to put the growing collection, this accidental archaeologist officially opened the museum in 2013, and today it is to the Valley what the Smithsonian is to America. It is a museum, he says, that was “not planned, but needed.”
Like the Smithsonian, the Valley Relics Museum is extraordinary, in large part, because of its scale, documenting both the seemingly inconsequential and defining moments of life in the region. Located in two adjoining airplane hangars on property owned by the Van Nuys Airport, it contains everything from small, sentimental objects such as ashtrays and matchbooks of long-closed, beloved area restaurants, to enormous lighted signs from shuttered bowling alleys and nacho joints. World War II ration books are displayed just feet from 1970s plastic tumblers from Orange Julius, a brand started in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Glass cases may hold anything from old ticket stubs from a recently closed roller rink to the personal effects of local heroes, or a collection of marketing collateral from a local muffler shop. And everywhere are tributes to area industries and interests including aerospace and BMX racing, a sport said to have had its genesis in Southern California.
Although much of the ephemera and relics here have more to do with daily life than show business, this is Los Angeles, after all, and mixed in with the old menus of long-gone Chinese restaurants and issues of no-longer-in-print local magazines, are quite a few pieces that pertain to the entertainment industry. Among them: one of the genie lamps from “I Dream of Jeannie,” a conductor’s baton that belonged to Lawrence Welk, and even a sticker-covered door from the real childhood bedroom of actress Eve Plumb, who played Jan on “The Brady Bunch.”
On display for at least the next year, is the original VW bus from the 1982 movie, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a film that is largely associated with the Valley, although it was based on Cameron Crowe’s experience going undercover at a San Diego high school. The film recently enjoyed a resurgence because of the famous pandemic table read that reunited actors Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt if only in the minds of the audience. The van, Gelinas reports, has created a “firestorm” on social media.
Of the thousands of artifacts displayed here, Gelinas says, it’s the extensive collection of electric and neon signs, some with graffiti still intact, that are the museum’s biggest draw. A neon sign from the now-defunct, iconic, Palomino Club, a famed North Hollywood country music venue that hosted talent such as Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Tanya Tucker, is a crowd favorite, he reports. Other signs in the extensive collection include one from a Jewish deli, a Van de Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakery complete with windmill and a galloping horse that once advertised a local liquor store.
If the bigger, showier items give the museum its pizazz, it’s the smaller displays that give it its charm. Among those is a vintage jacket on display from the “Poor Boys S.F.V.,” one of many 1950s car clubs that would go “cruising” on Van Nuys Boulevard, a main Valley thoroughfare that still holds “Cruise Nights.” According to Gelinas, the jacket was shared among the club’s members, which at one point reached 38. With little money among them, each weekend members would relinquish existing jackets to brethren who had dates.
Also of note is a small corner dedicated to memorabilia from the 1976 film “The Bad News Bears,” which was shot largely in the Valley. The capsule collection includes everything from uniforms, signed baseballs, a few scripts and a telegram to two of the film’s young stars from Walter Matthau, who played “Bears” coach Morris Buttermaker. It reads simply, “Knock ‘em dead!” How Valley Relics came to possess the objects is a story that is truly indicative of the way this particular museum works. As Gelinas tells it, when production wrapped, the mother of David Stambaugh, the actor who played Toby Whitewood, bought the memorabilia and eventually donated it to the museum.
Of the collection, Gelinas says, 25 percent is donated while the other 75 percent is “rescued,” as in Gelinas and his team get a call to come take an item that might be destroyed. These “History Watchdogs,” as he refers to them, call when beloved area signage or iconography is in danger of being torn down. When that happens, Gelinas says, he and his team of loyal museum volunteers, many of whom have been specially trained in removal techniques, take great pains to make sure things are done well.
“Anyone can pull stuff out, anyone can knock down a wall. You see it on TV every day,” he laments. What’s tough, he says, and what he and his team take great pains to do, is “to remove something in its entirety, in a preservationist way, to make sure that this stuff does not get destroyed.”
Take, for example, a wall of nine televisions that came from the Encino home of “Dragnet” actor and creator Jack Webb. The sets, which now sit in the middle of the museum exactly as they did in the Webb house (wall and all), were installed in the actor’s home supposedly so he would be able to watch rival programs simultaneously. Webb, who was also a producer, set each television to a different station in a different time zone, a move, Gelinas notes, that put Webb ahead of his time. Following an estate sale (Webb sold the house before he died in 1982, but the sets stayed), Gelinas was contacted about removing the wall as is: “We not only removed the TV wall, but we completely rebuilt it with all the original parts in our museum and reassembled it perfectly.” The team also painstakingly removed an astoundingly detailed three-dimensional diorama of what appears to be the filming of the chariot race in the 1959 movie “Ben Hur.” The piece was also embedded into the wall in the Webb home, and it now sits on the other side of the television wall in the museum.
The efforts made by Gelinas and his team are not lost on the community. “I find his museum to be very emotional,” says Alison Martino, a lifelong Angeleno and creator of the Facebook page “Vintage Los Angeles.” “I went to the Vatican two years ago for the first time. I was overcome with emotion — just as much as I am at the Valley Relics Museum!” she reports. “God love him for doing this! These signs would probably be trashed, or they end up in someone’s garage or they break down over the years.” Martino says the museum’s significance to the local culture can’t be underestimated. “I’m so grateful to him. We’re all very grateful to him for being a true crusader of our history. That’s Tommy!”
Martino is not alone. As both a longtime Valley resident and committed museum-goer, I get a rush from my personal visis here that’s very different from the kind I usually experience at such an institution. Like many people lucky enough to have visited many of the world’s great galleries, I have grown strangely accustomed to seeing items such as centuries-old Egyptian jewelry or Monet’s waterlilies held up as objects of value, but it’s the chasm of distance — of time, place, value, even perceived importance in the world — between myself and those items that usually produces the charge. Here, it’s the jolt of the familiar that creates the excitement.
There is something arresting about seeing a sign you used to drive by twice a day on a work commute or a parking placard from an area restaurant now closed because of the pandemic displayed as a thing of value — seeing something of your own history deemed worthy of being safeguarded and shown. Since visiting, I have not been able to drive around town without noticing signs and/or potential relics for the museum. (In fact, I once almost called Gelinas about saving a remarkable neon sign I spotted from the freeway and then stopped myself after realizing it was still being used by the flower shop that owned it.) Ming vases and Van Goghs, these items are not, but yet, this collection gives you the sense that perhaps no object — or history — can ever be called unimportant.
In addition to welcoming visitors from all over the world, the museum also hosts private events and has an enormous following on both Instagram and Facebook.
Gelinas says part of what drives him is his concern about the Valley being “stripped” of its culture, noting that in addition to providing a sense of nostalgia for people who grew up here, the museum also gives “people who are new to the area a sense of what we used to have.” And so, this cultural historian continues to preserve area history sign by sign, menu by menu, bike by bike, with care and reverence for what would otherwise be lost.
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If you go
What to do
Valley Relics Museum
7900 Balboa Blvd., Lake Balboa, Calif.
The nonprofit museum memorializes the history of the San Fernando Valley through local artifacts that range from matchboxes to neon signs. It also features a selection of retro arcade games, all of which are available to play with admission. Enter on the side of Stagg Street, perpendicular to Balboa Boulevard; the museum is located in Hangar C 3 and 4 and is clearly marked. Parking outside entrance. Open Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission $15.
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