Baltimore's reputation for weird goes south

July 25, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

A column in the Maryland section on July 25 stated that the American Dime Museum in Baltimore had closed because of financial difficulties. The museum closed, but subsequently reopened by appointment or reservation.

Not to be alarmist or anything - oh, what the heck, this is no time to mince words:

Baltimore is losing its weirdness.

It is escaping town and migrating to Washington, of all places.

The first sign something was amiss came last month when D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams was photographed cannonballing into a swimming pool to promote the city's summer programs. The spectacle of the usually bow-tied Williams in red bathing trunks was bad enough - the spindly legs, the scrunched-up, breath-holding face - but really, mayoral pool-flopping is a Baltimore not Washington thing.

But more troubling than losing our supremacy in civic aquatic stunts is the Palace of Wonders, a bar-slash-museum that recently opened in Northeast D.C. There, the walls are lined and cases filled with the kind of oddities you see in carnival sideshows and your more fevered nightmares: Taxidermied five-legged animals. A mummified hand. Pancho Villa's finger. Pickled babies in jars. And - my personal favorite - the variations on the theme of the deformed chick: one with two heads, one with two bodies but just a single face, another with - well, you get the picture.

It's all perfectly sickening. Oh, not the displays - it's the fact that they're there at all, rather than in Baltimore, that is the travesty.

If the freak-show collection now adorning the bar in Washington sounds familiar, it's because it is: This is our stuff. Or rather, James Taylor's stuff. Taylor - not the mellow singer - is a Baltimore collector and historian of sideshows who co-founded the city's late, great American Dime Museum. A re-creation of those 19th-century 10-cent attractions, the museum was perfectly at home here for six years, until its closing in December due to financial difficulties.

"We expect to see it every day," Taylor says of Baltimore's relationship to the weird. "We don't expect to have to pay for it."

Indeed, a city that is home to the Haussner's ball of string, George Washington's dentures, Dorothy Parker's ashes and, once upon a time, Johnny Eck, "The Amazing Half-Man," can come to take its oddities for granted.

Taylor, whose day job is as a state bureaucrat, had actually pulled out of the Dime Museum in 2003 after differences with co-founder Dick Horne, who kept it open until last year.

Taylor stored his stuff "in six facilities spread over three states" until he was asked if he'd be interested in leasing some of the items to the Palace of Wonders, one of several theme bars that have opened recently on a gentrifying street in northeast Washington. So that's where you have to go now to visit Devil Man, a petrified looking fellow with horns, who used to live in the Dime Museum and, before that, the window of Atomic Books when it was on Charles Street. He is said to have been dug up from the grounds of a cathedral in Mexico - you could look it up in the always-reliable Weekly World News, which once did a story on him.

Don't even bother asking if he, or anything at the Palace, is real. You'll get a wide-eyed stare and an ironic, "Of course it's real!" Meaning it's real in the sense that what you're looking at is physically right there in front of you rather than in your imagination.

Taylor continues to expand his collection, which is actually held by his publishing venture, an annual journal about carny culture called Shocked and Amazed! One of his latest purchases: "The shoe of a guy struck by lightning. It's just ghastly," Taylor says with delight. "What remains ... is two of his toes. It's just horrifying."

Maybe it'll turn up at the Palace at some point when Taylor rotates the displays. But without the Dime Museum, there's less of a chance we'll see such frightfully tasteless items without traveling down I-95.

Perhaps we can think of it as our own affirmative action plan for Washington, something to help them catch up with Baltimore in the weirdness area. They need it, says the pigtailed and tattooed Jill Fisher, who formerly traveled with a sideshow and helped design the decor of the Palace and set up its entertainment acts of sword swallowers and fortune tellers.

"It's the cream-of-the-crop nerds who come down to work for the government here," she says.

Which is as it should be in the old, natural division of labor between the two cities. They were federal; we were municipal. They were white-collar; we were blue. They had football; we had baseball. They had the Smithsonian; we, sigh, once had the Dime Museum.

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