Diggin’ in the Crate
Consider the milk crate, humble tool and emblem of the vinyl-record collector. Were it specifically designed for holding vinyl instead of cow juice, it couldn’t be better suited to the purpose. A happy coincidence of dimension and intention, it is light yet sturdy, easily transportable and eminently stackable, as suited to the trunk of a DJ’s car as to the shelving possibilities of the dorm, the one-bedroom, the party house.
It is, for many of us, our first furniture, the building block of countless ingenious arrangements spun from box, table, drape and board. It is décor, making up for what it lacks in elegance with the simple grace of an interlocking framework and ruffs of multicolored cardboard spines. It is an indicator of commitment and geek pride: Figure a hundred or so discs per crate, and a collection may be assessed by a like-minded freak at a glance — a display of wealth for the visiting chiefs, if you will.
And yet its status is not quite what it once was. Used to be, the milk crate was acquired through craft and ingenuity, through the haunting of the local market or the bribing of your buddy the box boy. It was collected by ones and twos, an ongoing scavenge not unlike the quest for vinyl itself. These days, you buy it — at Target or the local office supply, and in foofy shades of magenta and turquoise instead of dairy reds and blues. Fewer of us need it, too. CDs don’t fit, not really, not perfectly, and then there is the temptation to trade up to blond-veneer Ikea cubes or — the dizzy heights of storage — custom-made racks. Fancy, yes, but humble retains its pull: Can you pass a milk crate even now without that split-second pang of covetousness, without thinking, “Oh, I could use that”? Neither can I.
“There are so many levels on which I collect games,” says Ian Baronofsky. “The truth is if I only wanted to play games, I’d only need about a hundred. For some reason, though, I have thousands.”
Baronofsky, a radiologist, collects many kinds of video games and game systems, but the ones he loves most are by Atari. He’s got about 3,000 Atari cartridges, which he stores in pink Mary Kay Cosmetic cases — “the kind,” he says, “that would get you a Cadillac if you sold a hundred of them.” Atari games, by the way, fit perfectly in a Mary Kay case, and, as Baronofsky says, “they’re so ugly nobody else ever buys them.”
And what’s the big deal with Atari games?
“It’s really the simple feeling I get from handling the games and plugging them in and playing them,” says Baronofsky, who also has the requisite Atari T-shirts, jackets and posters. “I can escape into them and identify with a very abstract little character or dot on the screen. And the fact that these games are from my childhood means that I’m able to go an even greater distance. It’s something that makes me feel as if I can go back and revisit my life.
“Playing games is as vapid as anything. It’s a wonderful, engaging, but nonetheless insignificant escape. Which, of course, I find totally significant.”
—Max S. Gerber
It’s All Too Much
“There are no pictures of my parents,” says Chris Carter of the memorabilia he keeps in his home music studio. “But I can probably point out 18 pictures of Paul McCartney.” He has every Creem magazine ever published, and a music and video collection that would make the most avid Beatles collector hyperventilate. Consider his original reel-to-reels of every American and British Beatles release. Carter’s Beatles devotion is so well-known that Capitol Records hired him to help market the reissue of George Harrison’s classic All Things Must Pass album, and KLSX 97.1 asked Carter to host its weekend Breakfast With the Beatles show.
But aside from a set of Beatles rag dolls, an inflatable Yellow Submarine chair, and lots of pictures and magazines, it wouldn’t be quite right to call Carter’s collection blatantly fanatic. “I don’t have Beatles bed sheets I kept from when I was 4 or 5 years old,” he insists.
“There are two schools of thought,” Carter says about Beatles collecting. “There’s the lunch-box school — gotta have the Thermos, gotta have the cup. But I’ve got to have every bit of the music first. How can you collect a group when you don’t have all the music? You’ve got the napkin set? Who cares?”
The name of it, Museum in Black, doesn’t quite fit. There are no guards standing in every pristine archway eyeing you as you step too close to an artifact; there is no encyclopedic list of donors engraved on its walls. And there is absolutely no exactitude in this museum’s organization. When you walk into the rooms — and there are just two of them — you feel as though you have just climbed a rickety ladder into the attic of an avid pack rat. Of course, the objects amassed by Brian Breye, the museum’s collector/curator, are hardly what you’d stumble across in the average attic.
African artwork — dancing costumes adorned with cowrie shells, wooden sculptures, and long masks that would cover much more than a face — is cramped tightly into corners and stacked on low tables in the front room. Pieces lie on pieces as if they were just about to be put away into a more official display case. The back room is a boisterous gathering of racist and demeaning items that were disturbingly pedestrian in their day. Records, sheet music, dolls, salt and pepper shakers, books and mechanical banks are all stacked, piled, bundled, gathered and assorted in the small room, to the point of bursting. Breye does not feel the need to justify or explain his collection. He simply wants to present an alternative to the history that most people learn in school. “The museum speaks for itself,” he says.
Breye’s obsession began 38 years ago when he purchased a few wooden statues from St. Vincent DePaul’s. “I paid 50 cents for two pieces,” he says, repeating the words as if they were epic. “I sold them and went back and got more, and it went on and on.”
It is this cycle, this persistent desire for more stuff, that has taken Breye to where he is today: standing among thousands of artifacts resting in bathtubs and on stoves; somehow mere shelves have become inadequate. But how will he know when enough is enough?
“Well, you know, that’s the dilemma of the collector. You get caught up in it. I guess I am caught up in it like all other collectors.”
Call (323) 292-9528 for information on museum tours.
The House That Mad Built
One of the great things about the suburban American home is that you can do almost anything you want there as long as your front yard resembles the other front yards on the block. Glenn Bray and Lena Zwalve collect pop-culture artifacts from the 20th century. But the neutral façade of their house, on a cul-de-sac in a nondescript neighborhood, offers no indication of what’s inside.
Walk into their living room, however, and you encounter a bulging-eyed amphibian wielding a can of bug spray, which is to say, a huge reproduction of a French insect-repellent advertisement. Next to it is a large glass cabinet crammed with fantastic curios — French Symbolist erotic sculpture, vintage toy robots, a “Li’l Moron” doll, a wind-up Bojangles doll, an antique Popeye figurine, diabolical clown dolls, one-of-a-kind wood carvings, tribal art. Another cabinet houses objects from Easter Island, which the couple, married for 23 years, has visited twice. The walls are hung with original art by Jeffrey Vallance, Jim Shaw, Gary Panter, Dan Clowes, Robert Williams and Georganne Deen, among many others. Taking it all in for the first time, all you can say is “Wow.”
“It’s hard to say exactly what my collection is about, but nearly everything I own has an element of humor,” says Bray, who was born in 1948 in the San Fernando Valley, where he’s lived all his life. “If there’s a through line, it’s Mad magazine. As early as I can remember, I’ve had a desire to see unusual things. And when I saw Mad for the first time in 1957, it was so extreme, it just shocked me. It was as if my course in life had been set.”
Bray, who works in a hardware store, created his collection with modest earnings and an infallible eye. “In 1978 [Mad publisher] Bill Gaines auctioned off the Mad archives,” Bray says, “and I was among the maybe 100 people who even knew about it, so I bottomed out my bank account and bought 200 pieces.”
Upstairs is a library with hundreds of bound volumes of original comics. Included are original art from “Dick Tracy,” “Little Orphan Annie,” George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” “Popeye,” “Little Lulu” and all the EC comics. The library also houses Bray’s collection of wrestling photographs; unusual books; lurid pulp fiction; his post-card collection, which includes a sub-collection of thousands of devil post cards; and the plaid suit Spike Jones wore in the film Fireman, Save My Child. An adjacent room is furnished with file drawers filled with movie posters of four types: black movies from the ’30s through the ’50s; science-fiction films; exploitation movies from the ’60s and ’70s; and Mexican films from the ’40s and ’50s.
“I used to walk by a Mexican movie theater on my way to school, and I noticed that the movie posters were different from American posters in their use of color and design,” he recalls. “The best ones were by this guy named Ernesto Garcia Cabral, and I spent years finding those posters. I finally found this Mexican guy in Texas who was selling movie posters by mail, and he helped me track down one of each of the 45 movie posters Cabral produced from 1949 through 1957.”
Ask Bray about the financial worth of a piece, and he responds with a blank look. As far as he’s concerned, everything he owns is priceless. “Lots of collectors feel like I do, that money is of no value, because they’re not interested in selling. They may be interested in trading, though, if it enables them to get something they want, and that’s how works move from one collection to the next. For instance, Robert Crumb traded me an original drawing for my copy of Desire of Crippled Women, which was this weird medical text published in the early ’50s.”
These treasures couldn’t have fallen into better hands. Bray takes impeccable care of everything he acquires, commissions new work by living artists, republishes out-of-print works, curates shows and loans works to exhibitions. He loves sharing the collection with people, too, and he leads visitors through the house — perhaps Los Angeles’ most radical private museum — with the enthusiasm of a kid with some really cool stuff he can’t wait to show you.
Pausing at a drawing of “Pat and Pete Paperdoll,” created by Will Elder and published in Mad, Bray says, “Look at that beautiful line work. Zip, zip and it’s all there.” A moment of respectful silence follows.
“Once you’re known for something,” Brian Yaeger says, “people can’t help giving you anything they see that’s related.”
Yaeger is known for loving broccoli. Really.
“Whenever someone says, ‘Hey, Broccoli Guy! Here’s a broccoli magnet I saw,’ they’re saying, ‘I don’t understand it, but I support it.’”
Here are just a few of the broccoli-related items Yaeger has collected over the years: sterling-silver broccoli cufflinks, a cute stuffed broccoli that took $5 worth of quarters to win in one of those crane-grab games, a Whacky Pack sticker of George Bush senior puking broccoli, a CD by the English post-punk band called Broccoli, photos of Yaeger frolicking in a field of broccoli, a picture of the broccoli boutonniere and corsage he and his date wore to the prom in high school, boxer shorts hand-stitched (by an ex-girlfriend) with the message “I ¤ broccoli,” and a homemade broccoli PEZ dispenser (oh yes, Yaeger also has a PEZ collection).
“People who collect coins, they never spend them. People who collect stamps, they never use them to mail a letter. The thing that I collect has a value in life. It fights cancer. I’m a broccoli enthusiast. I encourage people to eat more broccoli. It’s the best vegetable for you. It’s loaded with fiber, calcium, vitamin C and antioxidants. And if it makes your farts smell, then, you know, what are you going to do? Trust me, if it made my pee turn green like asparagus does, I probably wouldn’t be into it.”
—Max S. Gerber