Hollywood: it's where you'd expect to find a museum exhibiting James Dean's underpants. But those star-touched unmentionables aren't in la-la land; they're 2,300 miles away, in Abingdon, Virginia, population 8,000. Robert Weisfeld lives there. The underpants belong to him.
Robert was born in Abingdon, moved to New York City, spent years collecting Hollywood memorabilia, then moved back home, opening Star Museum in 2007. Although the space is small, you will spend more time at Star Museum than you would at an attraction many times its size. That's because it's packed with artifacts ranging from Janis Joplin's hippie dress to Alfred Hitchcock's monogrammed tea towels, and because visits are not self-guided; Robert gently insists on conducting each tour personally -- and Robert knows a lot about everything that he owns, and wants to tell you about it.
"This is Joan Crawford's Christmas apron," said Robert, pointing to a sheer item with embroidered holly leaves. "That's the kind of thing you wear out of a kitchen when you're having a corporate function for Pepsi-Cola at your penthouse in New York and you've gone into the kitchen to kick asses and take names but you want to come out and appear to have done a certain amount of the labor yourself, by God, and done it right, and look fabulous at the same time."
The apron is casually draped next to one of Bette Davis's stuffed animals ("It's been darned by hand because Bette let the grandchildren play with it."), a shirt often worn by Rock Hudson on McMillan and Wife ("I can remember this shirt on television, and remember not liking it.") and a placard announcing, "Lucy Dies."
"I talked my newsstand guy in New York out of that sign," said Robert.
Robert avoids bulky artifacts like casting couches or Hollywood cars in favor of what he calls "personal pieces," memorabilia ranging from John Barrymore's sock garters to Louis Armstrong's dinner jacket (with extra pockets to stash his dope). Everything has a back story, which Robert supplies in a soft, laconic voice (He sounds a little like Mr. Rogers). Tell him your preferences -- Haunted items? Mamie Van Doren items? -- and he'll find what appeals to you. Our demands for oddball artifacts were cheerfully met, with Robert pointing out everything from the bed sheets of Elvis to a Christmas card of Jayne Mansfield posing with her Chihuahua. How did Robert come to possess James Deans' underpants? "He left them at a friend's house," said Robert.
At first glance Star Museum may seem like a cluttered attic, but Robert's tour reveals that in fact nearly every item is carefully placed by him to pick up a theme from whatever's nearby. Robert changes his displays regularly, which means that Star Museum is both a constantly evolving celebrity cavalcade and a window on the connections sparking in Robert's head. Frank Sinatra and Bela Lugosi -- this is the singularity where they converge. It also means that what we saw on our visit may not be on view when you arrive. Don't despair; in their place will be something equally worth your time.
"Southerners are by far the worst pack rats," said Robert. "Coming from a state obsessed with history, I think that some of that rubbed off on me." With a curator's eye he showed us a serving tray from the Hollywood home of Judy Garland, scuffed and dented during one of her more volatile marriages. "It looks like it's seen its share of action."