Dime Museum needs a pretty penny to run

Despite a last-minute surge in visitors, it still plans to close

November 28, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Like an art connoisseur wondering what a Monet would look like above his mantel, Bob Wolfe spotted a museum piece that he said would look nice in his home.

"I'd make room for the Amazon mummy woman in my garage, for sure," Wolfe said, admiring the 9-foot-2-inch remains - or purported remains - laid out in a glass case at the American Dime Museum.

Like the mummy, the little-known museum at 1808 Maryland Ave. will soon be going belly-up.

The publicized announcement last week of its likely demise at the end of December sent Wolfe, 55, out on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle yesterday to join the hundreds of visitors who have been streaming into the museum's cramped rowhouse quarters for a glimpse at its collection of oddities.

"I like it," said Warren Nixon, 38, of Joppatowne, standing over a 600-pound baseball bat and beneath a "biomechanically altered" deer that is said to have detected aliens in the 1950s.

"It brings back memories of the old circus sideshows - the crab guy, the miniature lady, the guy who turned into a wolf. ... They don't have stuff like this anymore."

For six years, the museum has recalled the kitschiness of the 19th-century displays, for which patrons ponied up a dime for the promise of jaw-dropping sights that left them wondering what was real and what was not.

But unlike the taxidermic wonders of its card-playing squirrels, the flesh-eating toad from Madagascar and the fur-bearing trout, the novelty museum's forthcoming closure is no illusion, according to owner Dick Horne, and visitors have flocked there for a last look.

After catching the end of a television news segment on the museum's closing, Edgewater resident Wolfe and friend Scott Griffiths, 45, jumped on their motorcycles and rode to the museum. Paul Sheinberg, 33, and his pal from Big Brothers Big Sisters, 9-year-old Bailey Paradine, visited as a change of pace from watching movies or playing in the park.

Groups of small children scurried through aisles lined with shrunken heads and freakish animals and past tattooed and amply pierced staff volunteer Peter Excho, giggling as they looked at their reflections in a funhouse mirror. Thirteen-year-old Kerry Townsend's stomach turned as she looked at a mummified cat.

"Ew, that's really scary," she groaned.

On Saturday, more than 200 people stopped by. And at $5 per adult, the boost in visitors that has followed the announcement will help. But Horne said nothing short of a big donor swooping in can stave off closure.

"This was the best weekend we've had since opening. It's sort of a shame because it shows the interest is there," Horne said. "It's not beyond saving, but the trouble is, people say they want to give $100, $200. We're talking about two years' worth of operating costs."

Much of the trouble can be traced to 2003, when co-founder Paul Taylor pulled his exhibits and his support because of philosophical differences over the direction of the museum, and the buildings that house the museum were put up for auction. Word spread that the American Dime Museum was finished.

But Horne pushed on, unveiling an exhibit of decades-old finger paintings by the late Baltimore Zoo chimp Betsy.

But faced with a combination of increasing operating costs and dwindling finances, Horne said he had recently resorted to keeping the museum open out of his own pocket. Last week, he decided to pull the plug. The museum's last day will be Dec. 31.

Though the museum generated much underground buzz, it remained a hidden treasure. Located north of downtown and across from an auto repair shop, it didn't feature the helpful signs that guide tourists to other city attractions, and the building itself is hard to distinguish when driving by.

Roaming the chilly museum yesterday - the heat was shut off to save money - were childhood friends Glenn Morrison and Larry Bennett, who recalled visiting similar exhibits at the Washington County Fair in the early 1960s for a quarter. It cost an extra 10 cents to see the "two-headed baby," recalled Bennett, 49.

"It was a clouded jar filled with formaldehyde and covered in plastic. You couldn't see anything," Bennett said. "It was very disappointing."

At $5, Bennett said, the American Dime Museum was worth every penny.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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