Though more than 30 years in the making, the Museum of Dust and Lack of Industry will never open to the public. Now that his collecting mission is complete, Neil Wolfson, the Roland Park museum's founder and curator, intends to scatter its contents to the wind, via that great clearinghouse in the cyber sky, eBay.
Together, the pulp fiction magazines, Japanese novelties, vintage painted ties, lunch boxes and board games (a round of Custer's Last Stand anyone?) make up a 20th-century gold mine of Americana and pop culture. Apart, they will find homes with collectors, who live for the thrill of scoring a Charlie the Tuna table lamp, a decanter disguised as binoculars (advertised as "Bar-noculars"), or an exceptional Mr. T lawn sprinkler.
"I just want to make sure it goes to the people who will appreciate it. Now I have everything I ever imagined I'd have, it's time to let it go," Wolfson says of the museum, which he got around to naming when it was time to shut it down.
The landlord wants him and his monumental jumble sale out, because a restored house nearby has added property value to the ramshackle Victorian, Wolfson says. He has rented this hulk of a house since graduating from the Johns Hopkins University in 1969 and is, in truth, relieved.
For the past decade, Wolfson, a 50-something lifestyle editor for NewsUSA news service and Seinfeld-esque gadabout, has spent more time in New York than Baltimore, and his untold acquisitions have become more burdensome than comforting. So he and friend Walter Reiss, all-purpose techno-whiz and pinball machine repairman, are spending the better part of the year sorting, scanning and selling.
Imagine removing the wall-to-wall possessions of an eccentric relative who constantly amassed stuff for stuff's sake. Gradually, over a period of decades, the rooms of this person's house have become impenetrable. After filing and shelving stuff became fruitless, every item was more or less delivered to its resting place and remained there ever since, creating a layered archaeological dig.
Rummage, artifact or nostalgic kitsch? As with so much of pop culture effluvia, value is in the eye of the beholder. But, buried beneath his yard sale acquisitions, Wolfson found priceless things he forgot he owned, such as a beautiful Dobro made by the National Guitar Company in the 1930s.
Wolfson also rediscovered his late mother's belongings, in and of themselves representative of a fiddle-dee-dee approach to life. A former model with a fondness for sartorial fauna, Lynn Wolfson had at one time acquired a felt cloche decorated with the heads of three real birds. Wolfson retrieves it from a hat box. It's revolting.
Other finds: A complete card of Beatles rings (29 cents each), a box of plastic hula girls, a large bar's worth of beer trays, a crumbling pile of Flash! The Nation's Most Exciting Tabloid.
There's a flask shaped like a pudgy hippie, undulating lamps circa 1950s, smiley face crockery, a chorus line of plastic Godzillas, a wind-up monkey made with real fur. The collection includes untold trinkets and gags from the warehouses of Recreation Novelty, once a mainstay on Baltimore's Park Avenue.
In its helter-skelter way, this entire collection has evolved into a work of pop art, an installation that speaks intriguingly to human ingenuity and excess. Wolfson, in fact, sent a letter to his former Hopkins house master, Arnold Lehman, now director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
He hasn't heard back, despite this enticing summary of his urban prospecting finds: "The result is three floors of endless eclecticism that includes a post-nuclear environment of Japanese movie monsters, a museum-worthy assemblage of Black Americana, political collectibles going back to FDR and more. It's all overseen by various effigies of Indian chieftains, exotic stuffed beasts and one great looming nun, the refugee of a condemned church."
Wolfson says he inherited the collector gene from his mother, an inveterate accumulator of clothing and objets d'art. His first important purchase was made at a New Hampshire yard sale where Wolfson, then 15, bought a lamp for a pittance and later discovered it was a Tiffany, he says.
Baltimoreans of a certain vintage remember Wolfson as a chronic party crasher (a hobby he still indulges in). They also remember his group, the Loose Shoes Rhythm Band. It was the house band for the legendary Marble Bar, opening for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, the Talking Heads, Squeeze and other groups, he says. For a time, Wolfson and fellow band member Bob Freedman, lately of Mambo Combo, operated a recording studio.
"Peter Panning" his way through the '70s and '80s, Wolfson says he also earned a living penning jingles and advertising mottoes, including this for a local used car dealership: "You can sleep in your car, but you can't drive your house." It's catchy in a low-rent kind of way.