In obscurity, museum stops on a dime

Gallery celebrating the weird shuts doors

November 05, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Can you imagine having to live once again in a Baltimore where you can't go and see a two-headed skull any old time you want? Or a Baltimore where you are denied a peek at a bunch of petrified, shrunken heads? Or a Baltimore where it is no longer your God-given right to gawk at an ice mummy, a Feegee mermaid, or a Peruvian giantess?

Oh lamentation, dear Baltimore! That Baltimore is now your Baltimore.

The American Dime Museum is no more.

Catching friends, admirers and even its own board members by surprise, the museum, repository of the bizarre and the grotesque, closed its creaky doors on Maryland Avenue Friday - Halloween night - after four years in existence.

The news was still spreading yesterday, creating gloom wherever it turned up. "It's really a tragedy because it was another thing that was unique to Baltimore," said casting director Pat Moran, a woman of famously macabre tastes. "Every time there is a film in town, people go there and find the place remarkable."

Benn Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books and a friend of the museum's two founders, was equally dismayed about losing an institution that contributed character to the city in a way that no franchise entertainment could.

"In a time when our town is overrun by places like Hard Rock Cafe and the ESPN Zone, it's terrible to lose an institution that makes us unique," Ray said.

The reason for the closure is a bit obscure. In an e-mail to friends of the museum, co-founder James Taylor wrote that he and his partner, Dick Horne, had decided to part ways. Taylor said he had planned to exit the museum toward the end of November, along with all his "props, books and artifacts" and to concentrate his attentions on Shocked and Amazed, his periodical celebrating the American midway.

Taylor said that Horne had planned to remain in the rowhouses on Maryland Avenue, operating an antique business and some kind of reconfigured museum.

But in an e-mail, Taylor said that the owners of the buildings recently decided to sell them at an auction. Horne's future there will now depend on the plans of a new owner, Taylor said.

Yesterday, Taylor said he was too busy to be interviewed, and Horne could not be reached.

But in answer to one e-mailed question, Taylor said the fundamental problem in operating the museum was money. "Enough coming through the door to make all the bills (since day one)," he wrote, "not enough for anything else (salaries, etc.). Gets to be crushing after a while."

As to the future of Taylor's extensive portion of the museum collection, he says he hasn't yet made up his mind. All he knows is that he has to get it out of the buildings by the auction date of Nov. 20, which prompted him to send out a desperate all-points e-mail pleading for help in the move. The museum was almost immediately a hit with patrons after its opening in 1999. The idea was to capture the feel of old-time dime museums, a favorite form of entertainment in the 19th century where you could pay to see all manner of curiosities, from bearded ladies to limbless creatures (human and otherwise) to skeletal remains.

Some exhibits were real, most were fake. But few complained about the con (as few complained about the spectacle of paying money to see human deformity). The dime museum was a place where you left critical judgment at the door. You paid to be surprised, to be frightened, to be sickened, and most people were not going to be denied, no matter how hokey the shows.

For the dime museums were not really about the exhibits, but about our desire to have fun.

Taylor and Horne lovingly re-created that spirit in their museum, and patrons were only too happy to suspend belief in pursuit of a good time.

"How can you go wrong with a giant ball of string?" says Ray, "or a giant bat?"

Sadly, we've gone wrong now. From now on, you won't be able to see a flesh-eating toad or a five-legged dog whenever the mood strikes you. Baltimore is not as interesting a place as it was a week ago.

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