How many is enough? Nothing is out of bounds for Vegas’ varied collectors
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 (midnight)
Photo: Leila Navidi
There must be a tipping point. A purchase that pushes you over the edge of admiration and into the ravine that is collecting; into the chasm that can only be filled with more items, more acquisitions, more dearly, deeply precious stuff.
Collectors. People who build their lives—at least in part, though sometimes entirely—around the accumulation of specific items, slowly piecing together a whole from the sum of its parts. Sometimes it’s an obsessive pursuit, other times a casual diversion. In each case, the collecting becomes a kind of organizing principal, a fixed focus that eventually defines the collector. You can bet, for example, that the local collectors profiled in this issue of the Las Vegas Weekly are easy to buy birthday gifts for. You can also bet, however, that they probably already have what you got them.
“My big thrill is to have everything perfect,” Shaun Wayne says.
Perfect pink satin bedspread. Perfect pink bedroom carpets. Perfect pink walls. Perfect pink bedside table.
Three hundred Barbies, perfectly stacked in unopened pink boxes, lining the bedroom walls. Seventy-five pink-lipped Kens. Seven hundred and fifty perfectly fixed pupils, watching Shaun Wayne sleep.
“It just gives me a personal satisfaction to see them in the box,” Wayne says. “It makes me calm to see their hair and outfits undisturbed.”
Barbie’s been just so busy. She’s been Rappin’ Barbie, Ski Fun Barbie, UNICEF Barbie, Czechoslovakian Barbie, Dallas Cowboy Barbie, Gift Giving Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Olympic Gymnast Barbie, George Washington Barbie (in 1780s drag), Dream Glow Barbie.
Collectors don’t decorate their homes. They curate private museums. Wayne’s house opens to a two-story living room—a magazine rack filled with collected periodicals rotates in the middle, next to the photo book library, which is surrounded by posters tacked 20 feet up: Farrah Fawcett on one wall, Marilyn and Mansfield on another, Wayne performing in drag by the staircase.
“I have an obsession with looking like Barbie.”
Wayne is assistant wardrobe manager at Jubilee!, a job that requires working all night. A job that makes it hard to go to daytime doll shows. As such, the contents of Wayne’s collection, like the house itself, are carefully chosen and acquired—Wayne has a weakness for heavily themed Barbies, for example.
Oh, and a weakness for celebrity dolls —that’s the second collection. It takes up the entire second bedroom: Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, Charlie’s Angels, Britney Spears, Blossom, Welcome Back Kotter, Saved by the Bell, Erica Kane from All My Children and so on. More than 200 of them, in their boxes, stacked 6 feet high, wrapped in plastic and perfect.
facial hair collector
Gia Ray doesn’t want to look at her collection. She finds her collection kind of disgusting, and nonetheless carries it everywhere—each individual item stuffed inside a locket, the lockets stored in a plastic bag, the plastic bag tucked into her purse, along with a razor blade.
Ray collects facial hair. She’s got 10 separate samples, all hand cut from mustaches and beards: Red, brown, dirty blonde.
“I don’t like to see the hair,” Ray says. “It’s gross.”
Only, it’s hard to ignore the few short strands sticking out of a large locket. Hard not to see how the locket stuffed with short red hairs could open and spill.
“I have people on the lookout,” Ray says. “Trying to get me good beards.”
Ray has always been a fan of facial hair. In November, while working at her Downtown studio in Place Gallery, Ray complimented a friend on his. Somehow, this led to Ray cutting off a sample. Somehow, this led to Ray starting a collection.
Now she’d like to diversify.
“I’d really like an eyebrow.”
People have been collecting hair for centuries. Victorians made jewelry from hair. Carbon extracted from a clipping of Beethoven’s hair was recently turned into a synthetic diamond. In 2008, the New York Times reported historical hair collecting had become a multimillion-dollar industry. It’s a way of possessing someone.
Lately, Ray’s had her eye on a particular beard. Matter of time, she says.
“I keep empty lockets in my purse just in case. Some drunken night, I might get my eyebrow.”
Donald and Phyllis Howell
Pepsi Cola and Campbell’s collectors
Listen, Donald Howell isn’t saying anything bad about Coke collectors. He likes Coke collectors. He has friends who collect Coke. He’s just saying that Pepsi people have a harder hunt: Historic Pepsi-Cola products are tougher to come by, simply because the beverage company didn’t produce as many collectables as its competitor.
Howell’s 2,000-item Pepsi collection took 15 years to build. It all started with a Pepsi-produced drinking glass from the ’70s that his wife, Phyllis, owned. Howell just liked it and wanted more. Soon, he had every glass in the series. Soon, he had a hobby.
Soon, Phyllis wanted something to collect. Her theme of choice: Campbell’s soup. She now has about 1,000 Campbell’s collectables.
“No matter what you collect,” Howell said, “you can’t wait to go out for the hunt. You can’t wait to find another piece.”
And you hold onto everything. Even the items you paid too much for as a new collector, he says. The trinkets that will never be worth much—you build sentimental attachments to all of them.
Howell is part of a small Pepsi collectors group in the Valley. They meet regularly to talk Pepsi and razz the handful of Coke collectors who show up. When he’s not at the club, Howell is hunting: garage sales, estate sales, antique malls. He won’t be finished collecting, he laughs, until “they shovel that dirt in my face.”
casino memorabilia collector
Las Vegas makes itself collectible. The cycle of creation and destruction here—the imploding casinos, shuttered club acts, shifting marketing campaigns—makes a tidal wave of instant mementos.
Steve Cutler has collected more than 100,000 such mementos: casino photos, casino security badges, casino chips (some in melted clumps from famous Vegas fires), casino menus, casino show costumes, checks written to casino performers and enough slot machines, Cutler says, to start a casino.
This is just skimming off the top. Cutler’s collection is divided into 40-something sub-categories. Today, it’s kept in a giant storage facility.
Five years ago, it was a museum.
The Casino Legends Hall of Fame was housed at the Tropicana for almost seven years, during which Cutler says some 2 million people came to see his collection. Moreover, the museum was always inducting new legends to the Hall of Fame.
“It was our version of the academy awards,” Cutler says, a museum making its own history.
The Casino Legends Hall of Fame left the Tropicana in 2005. Since then, Cutler has been looking for a casino or an investor to see his vision: Reopening the museum as a tourist attraction, with a theater for the induction of new legends.
“This collection, it belongs to the city, the state, the Smithsonian.”
Until then, Cutler collects. His house is a depot—new items are taken in and then transferred to storage. Cutler finds some of the best Vegas collectibles in other states—items locals threw away, tourists took home. (Visitors often stole plates and cups, which Cutler now collects.)
“I’m obsessed,” he says. “When you collect as many categories as I collect, you are always finding something new.”
Gary Darwin has a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs in his living room. Next to the kitchen, he has an assortment of guillotines: “head choppers, wrist choppers, finger choppers.” He has dozens of metal pans for making things appear after they’ve seemingly been set on fire—the smallest holds a jelly bean, the biggest holds a dog.
Darwin has a pair of foam balls in his pocket, then in his hand, then—poof!—they’re suddenly in your hand.
“Do I want to do a trick or a miracle?” he says. “Is it a trick or is it magic?”
Darwin has lived in Vegas for 52 years. He’s worked everywhere as a magician, and now consults with other magicians on their acts—an old dog with new tricks. He’s published 12 how-to books. His notebooks contain 600 personally developed and illustrated magic tricks that have never seen the stage.
He’s got boxes of research on stuffed rabbits, dove magic, vanishing and appearing bird cages, drinking-glass magic, etc. He has two bedrooms totally dedicated to his library on magic and related matters: hypnotism, skepticism, escape stunts, one-liner jokes. He has dozens of wands in one corner, hundreds of magic cup tricks lined on a shelf, thousands of magic magazines stacked in a corner and pigeons hovering outside.
He feeds the pigeons. When necessary, he traps a few for a show and drives them to the stage. When the show is over, Darwin releases the birds and they fly back home.
“If I gave up magic collecting, I’d be so bored I’d have to get married,” he says.
Forty-five years ago, Darwin formed a local magic club. They still meet, Wednesday nights at Boomers Bar.
Many of Darwin’s more valuable items come from failed magicians. Guys who moved to Vegas and never got booked. Broke and angry, they part with magic collectables for almost nothing—so rarely do magicians make it beyond birthday parties, artifacts culled from the successful few are almost instantly rarified.
So Darwin collects. When Lance Burton comes over, Darwin makes him autograph something. Darwin makes all his magician friends autograph something. And when Darwin himself appears in print—like on the cover of Escape Master magazine—he autographs his own name.