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Lucille Ball exhibit shows how Max Factor made Lucy a redhead.
Lucille Ball exhibit shows how Max Factor made Lucy a redhead.

Hollywood Museum

Field review by the editors.

Hollywood, California

Hollywood Boulevard draws tourists who hope to see movie stars. What they mostly see is other tourists. Real Hollywood types spend their days elsewhere, at private enclaves and studio lots scattered throughout greater Los Angeles.

Beauty Calibrator found the flaws in Hollywood starlets.
Beauty Calibrator found the flaws in Hollywood starlets.

However, when it comes to looking at things that celebrities might have worn or touched, Hollywood has many options.

There is, for example, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a polished and serious center of cinematic adulation. But it didn't open until late 2021, which means that for decades the city has been the turf of private collectors, whose museums offer fans film paraphernalia fished out of Los Angeles prop warehouses and estate sales. The items in these pay-to-see stockpiles are not chosen by trained curators, but by the tastes and bankrolls of the owners.

Cast members from It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. That's Mickey Rooney on the right.
Cast members from It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. That's Mickey Rooney on the right.

The Hollywood Museum is at the head of this class. It is the Official Museum of Hollywood, an honorary title bestowed on it by Hollywood's honorary mayor, which is a completely cosmetic and very Hollywood thing to do.

The Witches of Flatwick.
The Witches of Flatwick.

The museum is the passion project of Donelle Dadigan, a Los Angeles real estate agent who's known locally as "Hollywood's most influential woman." Show business insiders receive civic accolades (and a tax write-off) by bequeathing to Donelle props and costumes that had been gathering dust in their homes. The museum rolls out the red carpet for benefactors, hosting cast reunions and other events. When we were there it had just held a life celebration for Paul Sorvino, and some of the actor's ashes were on display in the lobby.

The most influential woman in Hollywood clearly has friends in high places, and her collection is built on the personal connections that this town is so famous for.

1930s building lends some historical Hollywood class.
1930s building lends some historical Hollywood class.

Free of any academic rigor or completist diktat, the Hollywood Museum satisfies itself by packing in as much as possible -- 10,000 items, it claims. The delight in visiting comes from not knowing what to expect in the next room. Perhaps it will be devoted to your personal cult classic, or to a lost gem from Hollywood's golden age. Or maybe it will be a curatorial hodgepodge, displaying a dummy Jonathan Winters next to a Karloffian Frankenstein's monster.

A quirk of these types of personal memorabilia houses is the magnification of items of lesser-known actors or movies, due to the collector's taste or artifact availability. Mementoes that would otherwise be a footnote in the history of movie-making are elevated to the status of relics: for example, Roddy McDowell's used blazer from Lassie Come Home (1943). The actor has an entire section devoted to him (Maybe he was an early friend of the museum).

There are artifacts from crowd-favorite films: Ghostbusters; Back to the Future I, II, and III in their own showcase; and many superheroes, although they're more Adam West than MCU. Items are here that you'd expect to see -- from The Godfather and Gone With The Wind, as well as The Wizard of Oz ruby slippers and Marilyn Monroe's honeymoon dress -- but there are also oddities, such as a piece of the "H" from the original Hollywoodland sign, and the nightmarish ball-eating dog from The Sandlot (1993), and an extensive display devoted to It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Lily Tomlin as Ernestine, the telephone operator from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1969), has her own room, guarding some figure skating costumes worn by Sonja Henie.

Michael J. Fox drops in from 1985.
Michael J. Fox drops in from 1985.

Many of the museum's mannequins have 2-D cardboard heads, easily switched out when the outfits are changed to those worn by different stars. Favorite monsters and horror films have a home in the basement, complete with an entire prison wing for Anthony "Hannibal Lecter" Hopkins.

What particularly distinguishes the Hollywood Museum from its competitors is its building, which is as much of an attraction as the memorabilia inside it. Formerly known as the Max Factor Make-Up Salon, it has four floors, and has been restored by Donelle to its 1935 "Hollywood Regency" Art Deco grandeur (This took nine years of work).

The history of the building creeps into the exhibits. Hygienic white coats and surgical instruments are scattered among the 8x10s of the stars that Max and his assistants helped to glamorize. Rooms are segregated by hair color -- this is where where Marilyn Monroe became a blonde and Lucille Ball a redhead -- and memorabilia from Old Hollywood shares space with powders and ointments. Of particular note is Max Factor's mechanical "Beauty Calibrator" -- "the only one in existence," according to its display -- whose metal probes encased the actor's head like a medieval dungeon skull-crusher. Its purpose, in pursuit of the "perfect face," was to detect barely visible structural defects that could be corrected with Max Factor makeup. "Flaws almost invisible to the ordinary eye," Max wrote, "become glaring distortions when thrown upon the screen."

Hannibal Lecter in terrifying 2D.
Hannibal Lecter in terrifying 2D.

Even the most devoted film fan can lose their passion for Lightsabers and DeLoreans after a day of museum-hopping in Hollywood. But a visit to the Hollywood Museum, with its Max Factor "Brunettes Only" and "Brownettes Only" rooms, gives you a chance to cosplay in your mind -- not like the costumed human photo-ops out on the Boulevard, but as filmdom's cherished real-life royalty, the same ones whose names are engraved in the Walk of Fame stars that line the pavement only a few footsteps from the museum's front door.

Hollywood Museum

1660 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, CA
In the old Max Factor Building. On the east side of N. Highland Ave. just south of its intersection with Hollywood Blvd.
W-Su 10-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $15.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Ripley's Believe It Or Not HollywoodRipley's Believe It Or Not Hollywood, Hollywood, CA - < 1 mi.
Hollywood Wax MuseumHollywood Wax Museum, Hollywood, CA - < 1 mi.
Icons of DarknessIcons of Darkness, Los Angeles, CA - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Portal of the Folded Wings, Space Shuttle Memorial, North Hollywood, CA - 6 mi.

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