Death lives on in 'Museum of Death'

2001-01-11 11:08

Hollywood - For those dying to know what happened to Liberace's dead cat Candy or the purple shrouds the Heaven's Gate suicide cult wore on their Phenobarbital- and applesauce-fuelled trip to "a level beyond human" - take heart!

They have been resurrected on Hollywood Boulevard.

If you are morbidly curious or just have time to kill, the year-old Museum of Death houses the world's most comprehensive - and possibly only - collection of death-related art, video footage, memorabilia, artefacts and photographs.

At the Museum of Death in the heart of Hollywood, almost nothing is taboo. Its 10 rooms offer just about anything you might want to know about the end of life, including cannibalism, suicide, taxidermy, autopsy, murder, capital punishment, accidents, disease and serial killers.

To get there, wander down that scenic portion of Hollywood Boulevard known as the "Walk of Fame" where stars' names are permanently encased in the sidewalks. When you step on the bronze star belonging to late horror film actor Bela Lugosi, who made his name playing Dracula, you are there - admission $7.

On a recent Wednesday night, all the tomblike rooms in the half-block-long building were dead quiet except for one housing a temporary cannibalism exhibit and a constantly running video of actual deaths accompanied by a gothic soundtrack.

Before reaching that, however, it is necessary to pass through several other chambers including a foyer where, tacked to the wall next to historic photos of hanged men, is a fluid- and blood-stained T-shirt removed from the body of a man after he was severely burned in Florida's electric chair.

This leads to a room containing antique mortuary equipment such as an 1880s embalming table with holes drilled to spell the mortician's name, as well as photos of dead babies in caskets.

A few steps ahead, Jayne Mansfield's dainty, now rigid, Chihuahua, who died in a car wreck with the 1950s bombshell, stands in a case with Liberace's glass-eyed kitty. Nearby are several other stuffed, albeit less noteworthy, canines, including Lady, a taxidermic Afghan hound who was found in perpetual slumber at the bottom of her deceased owner's closet.

Relatives, at a loss as to what to do with the stuffed pet, donated Lady to the museum, which, incidentally, receives about 40 percent of its collection from private donations, according to museum founders Cathee Shultz and her husband, J.D. Healey.

While the museum leaves most visitors temporarily speechless, the reasons for its existence are equally difficult to articulate. Its founders, who arrived in Hollywood from San Diego a year ago, thought Tinseltown would be tolerant enough to embrace their museum and their private household menagerie, which includes assorted albino reptiles, two-headed turtles and a chicken with two rectums.

But back to the museum: Beyond the cannibalism exhibit are cans of poison gas with swastika-emblazoned spigots that the Nazis used to kill Jews and others in Second World War concentration camps.

Nearby are thin wafers of bread and a carafe of wine - symbols Christians use to commemorate Jesus Christ, who died on a cross. There is also a red-and-yellow Laotian funeral float that once carried a high-ranking Buddhist monk.

"Gross! I'm going to throw up!" was the only reaction from one of the museum's two visitors that Wednesday as the pair stumbled through a hallway lined with body bags and graphic car accident photos toward an art gallery of paintings by notorious criminals and serial killers.

Lining the walls are original abstract paintings in virulent hues by Charles Manson and a self portrait of John Wayne Gacy as his alter ego, "Pogo" the circus clown. Gacy's death by lethal injection in 1994 has boosted the value of his paintings.

The gallery also displays drawings by "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz and photographs of some of the gruesome handiwork that brought the artists to Death Row in the first place, including an exhaustive collection of the carnage left by Manson and his followers.

There are also biographies of the famous dead and photos of Marilyn Monroe after she died and President John F. Kennedy after he was shot.

To get to the photos, one must first pass a room containing a recreation of the site where members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide. The museum's owners recently bought at auction the actual bunk beds where cult members died.

Mannequins lie on the beds, dressed in the actual outfits, including black jogging suits, Nike shoes and purple shrouds, worn by the cosmic pilgrims. They were donated by an anonymous mortuary worker, who fished them out of the trash, "but we had to launder them five times! They smelled like decomposition," Healey said in a telephone interview.

"I wore one of the shrouds to a wedding recently," he added.

Healey said he and his wife have always been fascinated with death. As a child, his wife scooped up a chunk of a man's brain after he fell from a balcony and placed it in a jar, he said, and he remembers burying animals in the back yard when he was young so he could get their skeletons later on.

The two met nearly 20 years ago at a coffeehouse where they worked and married three weeks later. They lived in Hollywood in the early 1980s before ending up in San Diego where they decided to open an art gallery in the historic Gas Lamp district.

When they found that exhibits having to do with death and the macabre - particularly those involving serial killer art - were marketable, they opened their first death museum in the city's first mortuary. The place eventually grew to include a bookstore specialising in provocative material, but disputes with the landlord and a desire to find a less conservative audience led them to move to Hollywood last year.

"When we first moved to Hollywood we visited a taxidermist who was going out of business," Healey said. "He tried to sell me a bunch of dead heads but I knew he had other things he wasn't showing me. That's when we got into the really good stuff - all the animals celebrities brought in but never picked up."

Other items were acquired by writing to killers and other criminals requesting their artwork and by scouring auctions.

But about 40 percent of the collection comes to the museum through private donations. Some people have offered to donate their bodies after death, Healey said, adding, "I'd like to do that but we need to get a refrigeration unit in here first."

He said he and his wife planned to exhibit their own bodies after death. He wants to be mummified; she wants to be "plastinated" by an artist in Germany who supposedly injects the body's cells with plastic and turns them into works of art.

Healey and Shultz never say never to donations, but they stop short of exhibiting photos of murdered children, nor will there ever be many Holocaust photos.

"The Museum of Tolerance does such a great job, we can't compete with that," Healey said.

As for inevitable criticism that what they are doing is sick and deranged, Healey sees a bright side to his work.

"We're historians. We collect historical artefacts. Death is the one thing we all have in common. Some of the items might not be very cool to some people," he said, "but if you pretend they didn't exist and sweep them under the carpet these things could happen again and again."

"Enjoy your life," Healey said as the phone went dead.