Secret life of pop culture's little treasures
By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Chris Oliver
Author Chris Epting has no truck with simplifying his life or tidying his office.
On his desk in Huntington Beach, Calif., sits a piece of a pyramid from Egypt, a fragment of the Berlin Wall, coal from the Titanic and a Ronnie Wood guitar pick. He's now searching for seating from old baseball stadiums.
Epting is the author of "The Ruby Slippers, Madonna's Bra, and Einstein's Brain: The Locations of America's Pop Culture Artifacts" (Santa Monica Press, $16.95). Anyone who's pondered the whereabouts of Dorothy's footwear, the limousine carrying JFK when he was assassinated, or George Washington's false teeth will find the answers in this book.
Historic and pop-culture artifacts are Epting's passion: If he can visit their original locations, he's there. If there is a chance to learn something interesting or unusual, mission accomplished.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've loved standing where something happened, even if nothing remained, just to share the space with history," he said.
"I've always found it leads to really interesting discussions afterward. Take Woodstock, for example, a truly historic concert. Everyone has their own memory of it, but if you revisit the location and share those experiences with a fellow traveler, it becomes especially significant."
Epting, the author of eight books, first took readers across the United States in his trilogy on American landmarks. In this book, he digs deeper to search for artifacts, including the most famous and quirkiest from American movies, crime, TV, sports and history.
"I located the spot in New York City where Marilyn Monroe posed suggestively over the subway grating during filming of 'The Seven Year Itch,' " he said. "But where was the famous white dress she wore? What happened to Lee Harvey Oswald's gun or Jimi Hendrix's guitar? Or the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln? And where is that Watergate file cabinet?"
Some items are in famous spots, like the Harry Houdini Museum in Las Vegas, where the famous illusionist's straitjacket hangs among hundreds of artifacts on show. But who knew that the location of Elton John's platform shoes is the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto? There, 10,000 pairs of shoes cover 4,500 years of history, from ancient Egyptian sandals to those worn by Chinese women with bound feet and Pablo Picasso's 1960s ponyskin ankle booties.
California tops the states with 55 entries, ranging from the fastest plane in the world — the SR-71, unofficially known as the Blackbird, on display at the March Field Air Museum — to the quirky Baghdad Cafe from the 1988 movie of the same name starring Whoopi Goldberg, in Newberry Springs.
In Hawai'i, Epting has listed the world's largest maze, at the Dole Plantation in Wahiawa, and Babe Ruth's banyan tree, planted by the baseball great in 1933 on Banyan Drive in Hilo.
To report on places, Epting heads out "on a lot of family road trips (kids Charlie and Claire are 12 and 9) which combine history and education," he said. "Fold in an unusual museum and you always have something interesting to discover and talk about plus (the kids) get to see a lot of the country and (sometimes) find answers to their never-ending questions about life."
Epting's enthusiasm is profound. He's still on the trail for items listed in his "Missing in Action" section, such as the O.J. Simpson trial weapons, Amelia Earhart's airplane and the original timbers from the Mayflower, which he thinks are part of a barn in England.
His hope is that the book will entertain and educate.
For every National Baseball Hall of Fame, you'll find a Cockroach Hall of Fame Museum (in Piano, Texas). For every historic artifact, you'll find an offbeat treasure.
These are "treasures that are in some cases among the few remaining physical links to events themselves," Epting said.
Each page contains one or two items with a photograph, brief history and why they're worth a visit. Addresses and telephone numbers are included.
Each chapter addresses a different topic (historic, criminal, sports, entertainment, music, roadside relics). The attractions are also listed by state in the back of the book.
So, where is Madonna's bra?
The form-fitting black and gold bustier from her 1987 "Who's That Girl" tour is where you might expect: Frederick's of Hollywood, on Hollywood Boulevard. Tassels intact.
Meanwhile, Epting is gathering information for his next project: "It's an American rock 'n' roll trip; everything to do with rock tours across the U.S.," he said.
Should be a blast.
Reach Chris Oliver at email@example.com.