Star Museum Has Plenty to Say About Silent Film Stars
By TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER | October 20, 2009*** Published: October 16, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***
ABINGDON, Va. – Step inside the Star Museum.
Owned and operated by Robert Weisfeld, the museum features a colorful trove of memorabilia connected to Hollywood and the film industry.
For example, much on current display within the museum relates to its presentation of "Hell's Belles," which opened on Oct. 9 and runs from Oct. 23-30. Large picture windows in the shop feature items related to infamous axe murderer Lizzie Borden and murdered actress Sharon Tate.
Just inside the door rests actress Joan Crawford's black opera coat. Framed autographs, including a magnificent one by Mae West and a James Stewart sketch of Harvey the invisible rabbit, adorn the walls.
And that's just inside the entryway.
Deeper within the Star Museum emerges remnants of Hollywood's silent film era. Weisfeld displayed a large book from which a passage recalls actress Helen Mundy, who stars in the 1927 silent film "Stark Love," which will be shown on Oct. 22 at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tenn.
"When I talk about silent films, I say once upon a time there was a universal language," Weisfeld said, "and it was the silent film."
A few feet away and on a wall in a frame is an autograph by Rudolph Valentino, perhaps the biggest star of the silent film era. A blue monogrammed handkerchief once owned by Valentino also shows prominently within the display.
The pieces connected to the long-dead actor are favorites of Weisfeld's.
"Anything connected to Valentino," he said, "because I'm fascinated with him."
Valentino has company among silent film actors represented in Weisfeld's museum. A diminutive black bonnet adorns a pedestal of sorts. It appears minor in a museum that includes Cary Grant's vivid red and black robe and James Dean's boxer shorts.
But that black bonnet hails from perhaps the most influential and infamous film of the silent era.
"Lillian Gish wore that black bonnet in D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation,' " Weisfeld said. "That's the oldest piece in my collection."
Go ahead and pause to say wow if you wish.
Further back into the Star Museum, Weisfeld pointed to another black hat. Much larger than Gish's bonnet and with a floppy brim, the hat appears otherwise unremarkable. But few are the things that qualify as unremarkable with the Star Museum.
"It's Clara Bow's hat, and it is exceedingly rare," Weisfeld said.
Bow, along with Valentino, Gish, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and so on, was among the most accomplished actors during the silent era.
"She lived the fast life," Weisfeld said. "She had a red convertible roadster and red hair. She was a traffic stopper. She was the first real sex symbol."
Yet Bow, along with scores of silent film actors, failed to successfully transition as talkies, movies with sound, quickly overtook silent films. Some failed because of poor accents, squeaky voices or simply voices that did not match their appearance.
Not that they didn't try. Bow starred in the 1932 talkie "Call Her Savage."
"And it was too hot to handle," Weisfeld said of the film that actually featured elements of sadomasochism. "Plus, she had a thick Brooklyn accent. Nobody bothered to vocally coach her."
While Bow and many others failed to transition, actors such as Joan Crawford and the thickly German-accented Greta Garbo thrived.
"I think Garbo transitioned because she was so exquisite and because she had a relationship with the camera that compares only with Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe," Weisfeld said. "Crawford was one of the great beauties."
IF YOU GO
What: The Star Museum presents "Hell's Belles!"
Featured: Lizzie Borden, Jayne Mansfield, Sharon Tate, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Vivien Leigh, etc.
When: Oct. 23-30, 8 p.m. by reservation only
Where: 170 E. Main St., Abingdon, Va.
Info: (276) 608-7452
STAR MUSEUM HOURS
Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Friday: 1-6 p.m.
Weekends: By appointment only