Elephants you can never forget Mister Ed's museum is merrily trumpeted by Miss Elle herself

November 01, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

ORRTANNA, Pa. -- Drive west from Gettysburg into the mountains and, suddenly, there on the roadside, blinking her eyes and twitching her ears, looms Miss Elle Phunt.

Miss Elle is the beacon that draws you to the quirky place known as Mister Ed's Elephant Museum. Miss Elle is fiberglass, 10 feet high, 10 feet long and weighs 500 pounds.

Edwin L. Gotwalt -- Mister Ed to one and all -- bought her from an antique shop in Ohio in early 1984, shortly after opening the museum. He loaded her onto a trailer and draped this sign in back:

"Follow me to my new home, Mister Ed's Elephant Museum."

Miss Elle resides 12 miles west of Gettysburg on Route 30, just outside the museum that showcases about 4,000 of the more than 5,000 elephants Mister Ed has collected in the past 25 years.

He received the first, a small wooden elephant for the shelf, in 1967 as a wedding present. Now, as he surveys his peculiar collection, he says: "I never dreamed elephants would be such a big deal."

He has elephant vases, mugs, planters, cookie jars, cigarette lighters, incense burners, hair driers, shirts, ties and a G-string.

He has an elephant potty chair, toys, salt and pepper shakers, a handkerchief with an elephant and the words "I Like Ike," a political button with an elephant and "Don't settle for peanuts . . . Elect Ford," and a bong for smoking marijuana through an elephant's trunk.

He has no live elephants, but he'd love to own two, a male and a female.

"Can you imagine coming up this mountain and seeing two elephants on the hill?" Mister Ed says, his eyes on fire like the flaming orange leaves along this gorgeous stretch of autumn landscape.

Mister Ed is 56, a squat, bearded man who wears a denim vest, jeans and cowboy boots. He says his attraction to elephants is almost mystical.

He points to a photograph of himself at 9 or 10 years of age feeding an elephant at a circus in York, Pa., his hometown.

And he points to the first advertisement for the pizza shop he opened in Salisbury, Md., when he was 21. It features a large elephant.

When he got married at 31, his sister-in-law gave the newlyweds a wooden elephant. On their honeymoon, Mister Ed made the offhand remark:

"Why don't we start collecting elephants?"

They bought three on their honeymoon. They bought more when they got home. Friends and relatives started giving them elephants as gifts. In a couple of years they had 300 or 400.

"That's a lot of elephants, by the way," Mister Ed says.

He lived in an apartment in Beltsville at the time. He was training to be a store manager for Giant Food.

"Looking back on it," he says, "it must have been bizarre. Friends would come over, and there'd be elephants in the bathroom, elephants everywhere."

It got more bizarre.

In 1975 he came home to Pennsylvania, buying an old building and 20 acres on Route 30 outside Gettysburg and opening Mister Ed's, "the territory's most unusual general store," he called it.

He sold souvenirs of Gettysburg, antiques, candles, groceries and snacks, and in a room off to the side he displayed about 500 of his elephants. By then he had 1,000 or 1,500.

"As I've gotten older," he says, "I've had the feeling P. T. Barnum and I had something in common."

He certainly shares Mr. Barnum's flair for promotion.

During the Bicentennial in 1976, he pledged to stay awake 76 hours. Anyone who came into his store and found him napping would get $100.

He stayed awake and got lots of publicity. "And we did phenomenal business," he says.

Every year he played Santa Claus. He arrived at his store the Sunday after Thanksgiving -- on a covered wagon one year, a circus calliope the next.

Once he decided to arrive in a hot-air balloon. The pilot made it over three mountain ranges, but they hit a downdraft above the fourth.

"I learned what a downdraft means," Mister Ed says. "It means you go down."

They dropped 2,000 feet, he says, landing in the treetops about 75 feet above ground. Mister Ed, dressed as Santa Claus, and the pilot were afraid to move, afraid they might dislodge the basket and plummet to their deaths.

Mister Ed learned later that the pilot of a small airplane had seen them go down and called the state police. He says he also learned that a state police helicopter, after spotting the stranded round man in the shimmering red suit, radioed back to headquarters: "Rudolph had a blowout."

A rescue crew eventually got them down, and Santa Claus did indeed arrive, albeit late, at Mister Ed's on a fire engine.

"All I could think about was lying in a mortuary in that Santa Claus suit," Mister Ed says. "How do you explain to kids that Santa Claus is dead?"

In 1983, eight years after opening Mister Ed's general store, he moved a short way west on Route 30 to his current location, and for the first time christened his collection Mister Ed's Elephant Museum.

He set it up in a small, brightly lighted room connected by a hallway to the gift shop, where he sold candy and the familiar Gettysburg souvenirs.

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