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The Junk Man’s Daughter 

Allee Willis is Queen of Kitsch

Wednesday, Oct 7 2009
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A small selection of Allee Willis’ kitsch collection showed recently at Ghettogloss gallery on Melrose Avenue. She hosted a party there while guests looked at her Touch O’Soul pantyhose and French Fry bubblegum and such.

Willis has amassed her kitsch collection over 40 years. So really, the sampling at the gallery was just the tip of a giant iceberg of pink-poodle magazine holders, golf-ball lamps, crab-shaped straw purses, Mr T. piggy banks, and foot bottles with lotion inside that smells like feet.

“Lots of people think kitsch is something completely tacky and overwrought,” Willis says the day after the party. “I’m completely opposite. They’re slices of pop culture, things born of a certain time.”

click to enlarge JENNIE WARREN - Allee Willis knows kitsch.
  • Jennie Warren
  • Allee Willis knows kitsch.

If kitsch had a musical equivalent, it would probably be the song “Boogie Wonderland,” which Willis wrote in 1979 for the band Earth, Wind & Fire, or “Neutron Dance,” which she wrote for the Pointer Sisters in 1984. But it wouldn’t be “I’ll Be There for You,” the theme song she wrote for the television show Friends in 1994, because that was a mere 15 years ago and kitsch is almost always vintage.

Willis is 61, with a vivacious, muscular personality. Her collection stems indirectly from her music career, which has put her name on 50 million records and on music videos she’s directed. She began collecting kitsch back in 1969 as props for videos filmed at her house.

At the gallery show, she invited people to e-mail her photos of their own kitsch. “The response has been great,” she says. “Every time I open something up, I scream.”

She had received 20 submissions by the next morning — velvet Elvises, squirrel spoons, toilet ashtrays, Spam cookbooks, Vincent Price shrunken-head apple kits. “There hasn’t been a lemon yet.” She evaluated the items on degree of kitschiness and posted photos of the truly worthy on her new online Museum of Kitsch.

The museum’s physical manifestation is Willis’ bungalow, known officially as “Willis Wonderland” and unofficially as that pink house in the Valley that’s full of weird, old crap.

Or in some cases, new crap that will become kitsch once it has aged. The Snuggie is one example. Willis deems it a classic-in-the-making. “If you said to me, ‘Name the Top 10 kitsch items,’ the Snuggie would be there. It’s a blanket with sleeves. It’s a completely stupid thing that sold 14 million units in the first year alone. It’s made so cheaply, the joke’s on us. Now there’s Snuggie for dogs, which is going too far.”

Willis rifled through a closet. “Do you remember pet rocks? There’s someone who didn’t have to do anything but paint a smile on a rock. I’m fascinated by people who do what’s completely off the scale of what’s normal, people who have a vision.”

Then there are the hair things, she says. “Like the Scrunchies. Those are huge. And that clip thing.”

“The banana clip?” offered her friend Mark Blackwell.

“No, the elastic with the combs in it and it clumps your hair up. Infomercials are one of the highest forms of art.”

“The Slap Chop or the Gratey,” Blackwell says.

“Yes, all that stuff. Kitsch often has a cult built around it. Did you see the slippers with the mop head on them? I swear to God, they work.”

Kitsch also is about individuality — individuality run amok in some cases. When Willis remodeled her baseme nt, carpenters wanted to cover the plumbing with dry wall. Willis refused and told them to illuminate it instead. “I am the only one in the world who has a lit sewer pipe,” she explains. “Now that’s kitsch.”

Clowns are pretty kitschy, but Willis detests them. She appreciates the obsession behind her friend Diane Keaton’s clown collection but claims it’s the most horrifying room she’s ever seen.

Visitors to Willis’ home also occasionally recoil with horror, but for the most part, she says, “People walk in and totally open up.” This was ideal, because so much of what Willis is trying to do is to get a party going. Or maybe try to remake her childhood. “My father owned a junkyard in Detroit. I grew up in a junkyard. It had a railroad running through it. I was always around other people’s stuff. He never approved of my collecting.”

“Imagine the psychological impact on Allee’s mind,” Blackwell says. “All this amazing stuff is passing through only to get crushed in the end.”

Willis leans back in her purple-vinyl chair. Her father saw her house once, shook his head and offered to crush its entire contents.

Her collecting has grown worse over the years because she has gained a reputation she must uphold. The overflow goes into a 2,000-square-foot storage unit. It is packed with stuff like cars and a plastic tub full of clam-chowder containers.

The problem is compounded by people who feel compelled to give her their kitsch. A guy at last night’s party offered her his Gucci-upholstered 1979 Cadillac El Dorado. “It’s evidently been in a lot of hip-hop videos,” she says, sighing. “God only knows what’s happened on those seats.”

In the future, she envisions, people will bring her their kitsch to appraise. A traveling show has been discussed, a kind of poor man’s version of the TV series Antiques Roadshow. She believes this would be a smart career move.

Willis walks from the bedroom to the dining room to the basement. “I remember everything I have and where it is,” she says, surveying the menagerie of salt-and-pepper shakers in the kitchen. “What I’m starting to not remember is where I got everything and how much I paid.”

Eventually she enters the office of her home recording studio. The plastic IKEA bubble curtains there are not kitsch, but they are shower curtains, and using them like regular curtains is definitely kitschy.

Looking out the window to the backyard, you can see Tiki masks nailed to the trees. Do the eyes glow?

“Oh, my God, how did I not think of that?” she asks. “By the next time you come here, they will.”

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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