A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
Death’s New Hollywood Digs
All told, there will be roughly 400 items on display including collections of antique coffins and funereal mementos, grisly crime scene photos, clothing soiled in a Florida electric chair, a Laotian funeral float used in the last rites of a high-ranking Buddhist monk.
BY AL RIDENOUR
“We got the bunk bed!”
The cellular connection to the truck is spotty, but the triumphant tone in Cathee Shultz’s voice rings clear.
A used bed. Cheap tubular construction, neutral white, and completely unremarkable. But for one cosmic pilgrim sporting black Nikes, a jogging suit, and a scanty knee-length shroud, this bed was the launch pad for a metamorphic journey. Now the bed is in a pickup headed toward LA.
Shultz and her husband, J.D. Healy, are returning from a San Diego county auction of the communal effects of the Heaven’s Gate cult whose journey to the “level beyond human” in March 1977 involved hearty doses of Star Trek, applesauce, and Phenobarbital. The couple has purchased the suicide bed for display in their Museum of Death scheduled to open on New Year’s Day on Hollywood Boulevard.
In its first incarnation opened in 1993 in a former mortuary, the museum was an anomaly of San Diego’s historic Gas Lamp district, until disputes with the landlord and a desire for a larger urban audience resulted in the couple’s decision to close that location on Halloween 1999.
With ten rooms to work with (more than twice the space of their old digs), and a tourist-friendly location on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the two are clearly giddy over the change. Acquisition of the bunk bed is fanning that flame, but beyond that there is yet another coup to report. Shultz passes the phone to her husband so can have the pleasure of relating the news.
“I found this one pallet of clothes, household utensils, light bulbs and stuff. I tried to cover it up so no one else would see it,” Healy says. “But we got it! The scouring powder — the heaven’s gate Comet!”
Healy spins off a few PT Barnumesque scenarios for exhibiting the punning cousin to the cult’s harbinger of doom, and then agrees to meet in an hour at the Museum’s new site.
There is a strong odor of bleach wafting from the abandoned restaurant on the corner of Hollywood and Ivar. Shultz emerges with keys for the security gate wearing post-mortem style rubber gloves and filter mask, quickly explaining that she is merely cleaning mildew from a soggy floor. Her chirpy voice and casual manner deal swiftly with any preconceptions of a pancaked poseur in black velvet and veils. Healy’s appearance is equally user-friendly, though both of the couple, now in their late thirties, have a few tell-tale tattoos from their earlier punk rock existence. An image of a winking woman surrounded by symbolic arrows of chaos peeks from under Healy’s collar.
“That’s Rita Dean,” he says pointing to the tattoo. “Of the Rita Dean Gallery.”
Rita’s wink hints at her chimerical reality. Healy explains that the name is an amalgam of the owner’s names: James Dean Healy and Rita, Healy’s nickname for Cathee. Predecessor to the Museum of Death, the gallery grew from Healy’s personal collection of outsider art and artifacts, in particular the artwork and letters he exchanged with serial killers.
After early success obtaining a self-portrait by John Wayne Gacy in the skull-like clown makeup of his alter ego, Pogo, Healy was joined by his wife in the correspondence campaign. Their collection grew to include a handmade valentine from retarded cross-dressing murderer Ottis Toole, a pop-up card depicting Gacy’s Pogo (designed by teen-killler Lawrence Bittaker), a sketch of Jeffrey Dahmer’s canabilistically stocked fridge (rendered by Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez), and a yarn doll lovingly crafted by Charles Manson.
With the exception of Manson, who after all is not a killer, and Ramirez, who still awaits execution, the careers of such artists tend to be cut short by state-administered gas, lethal injections, or electrocutions, and with these limits imposed upon the commodity, the market value of and perverse appeal of such ghoulish trinkets tends to soar.
“Serial killer art” exhibitions mounted by the couple were therefore quite successful, enough to encourage them to open their own gallery, the Rita Dean, and eventually add to this Tohubohu books, a small bookstore specializing in provocative material. The building housing the two became what Shultz calls “a weird little underground mecca downtown. We created our own little environment and our own entertainment. It was fun and entertaining for us, but eventually you have to pay rent.”
Their custom of charging a dollar for openings brought stiff resistance. “It was just the mindset,” says Shultz, “you pay to enter a museum, not a gallery.” The solution was obvious; the Museum of Death was opened in the gallery’s basement, the gallery subsequently closed.
Already paying rent on an unused basement, and with fixtures and lighting from the gallery, the start-up was financed with the couple’s savings, says Shultz. Previous years of morbid rummaging in flea markets and antique stores provided many of the display pieces. Donation of items also accounted for at least 60% of the collections, she says. The serial killer material as well as full-size electric chair and guillotine mock-ups from Rita Dean’s “exotic weapons” show fit right in. Healy, who constructed the guillotine, sees this sort of work as an extension of installation art done in college, and both curators subscribe to the punk rocker’s independent do-it-yourself philosophy, personally attending to of all museum tasks from designing souvenir t-shirts, to cleaning toilets. The approach, they say, has been successful with the museum’s $7 admission and memberships completely supporting the endeavor before its closing in San Diego.
Uploading to their Hollywood haunts, they’ll have the chance to pull certain items from storage, like an 1880s embalming table with the drainage holes drilled to spell the mortician’s name. Healy walks through the half vacant dilapidated halls, stepping over puddles and piles of unpacked boxes, waving at different rooms, indicating the area for rotating exhibits, the room for mortuary equipment, a niche for special jewelry worn by Victorians in mourning, a screening room for video loops of real-life death scenes culled from news and documentaries, the gift shop where visitors can pick up t-shirts, baseball caps, and coffee mugs sporting images of decapitations. All told, there will be roughly 400 items on display including collections of antique coffins and funereal mementos, grisly crime scene photos, clothing soiled in a Florida electric chair, a Laotian funeral float used in the last rites of a high-ranking Buddhist monk.
Outside Healy details plans for a paint scheme involving immense skulls perched atop each of the three bas-relief pillars on the façade, a look sure to compete well for the attention of museumgoers at the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition across the street.
“Best of all, look at this,” he says gesturing to the bronze star inlaid in the sidewalk. “Check it out! Bela Lugosi! He’s pointing right at us!”
Exploitative tourist trap? The accusation won’t really phase the Museum of Death’s curators, who maintain an outspoken enthusiasm for the hucksterism of Barnum as well as a punk rocker’s indifference to matters of taste.
“Bad taste?” Healy mulls over the term as if it were Sanskrit. “That’d be Christmas time in the malls when the decorations go up.”
Shultz admits that there are categories of imagery she would not display, including juvenile murder victims, Shultz feels that teenagers learning to drive would benefit from a look at the museum’s photo gallery of automobile accidents.
“I think they should see this stuff in high school. I think they should go to the coroner and have to watch an autopsy. Not just the people who are in trouble with gang violence or drunk driving. Everybody! The reason we have things like Columbine is because the media in this country holds back and doesn’t show what dead bodies look like splattered all over the floor. Kids don’t know. For them it’s cool.”
Naturally there is the occasional angry response directed at the curators. “I turn it around to see that their anger goes to the right places, and not at me,” Shultz says. Be angry, but be angry at what our society does. I’ll talk people through these exhibits. I try to engage them.”
Healy doesn’t see much anger. “I think people are afraid,” he says. “They come in bunched in groups like it’s a haunted house, but once they start talking to us, the groups separate, and we get that one-on-one with people. You can’t ask for something better than when you get somebody to talk truthfully about life and death.”
Reflecting on his own mortality, Healy expresses a desire for a theatrical funeral, “I want to be pickled in a giant jar.” Shultz says she wants to be plastinated. “There’s a doctor in Germany, who’s working on this amazing technique. It got a lot of bad press after they exhibited the bodies in art galleries. They inject all the cells with plastic. It’s so cool!”
When asked about her personal experience with death, Healy says that as a young adult he lost his father, one of the restaurateur involved in founding Burger King. To counter accusations of callow exploitation, he plans to create a new exhibit in the Hollywood museum tracing the history of just such deaths within the curators’ own families.
Shultz’s exuberance dims as she reports that though she lost a grandmother, she’s never been to a funeral. “Isn’t that horrible! I know, I know; maybe I’ll change when someone dies. What can I say?”
“But I have seen dead bodies!” She recounts an accident involving an intoxicated man in her neighborhood who fell from a balcony. “The poor guy’s head was open like a pumpkin, and they were hosing it away. They missed a chunk of brain, so later I got a leaf and paper cup, and just scooped it up and took it home and froze it.”
Healy recalls similar pursuits from his childhood. “I used to bury animals in the backyard to get the skeletons later. My mother tells me I was a strange kid. I also had a pet crab I would walk around on a leash.”
Shultz’s early background, however, lacks such foreshadowing. “Up until I was about 18 I was extremely normal. I came from a very white-bread family. I was a Campfire Girl and a Bluebird. I was so normal that it hurt.”
Sometime before she met her husband, Shultz discovered punk rock, ditched plans for college, and ended up working in the coffeehouse where the two met. Healy, who had spent his college years screaming out lyrics for the band Laboratory Animals, had recently dropped out and was drifting through Phoenix, where he’d taken a job baking cakes for that same café.
It was love at first site.
“I met and married my husband in three weeks. That right! It was probably the most radical thing I’d ever done. I pretty much moved in the day we met.”
The couple moved to Hollywood in the early 80s to be part of the burgeoning music scene, but finding themselves sinking into a world of desperate living and desperate drugs, they sold everything and bummed around Europe for a bit before returning to the more subdued environment of San Diego.
Now after many years, they’re back in Los Angeles living out a bizarre version of the domestic ideal. Outspokenly devoted to each other and the museum, they spend rare moments away from this endeavor caring for their pets, a menagerie of more than a dozen animals including a number of freaks solicited through Healy’s calls to ranches regarding misbegotten births: albino snakes, two-headed turtles, and a chicken blessed with two rectums.
Though they may argue about how much Healy spends on acquisitions, Shultz usually ends up agreeing with his choices. “He can make some pretty radical decisions. He can be an asshole, but I try to buffer that. I keep him grounded. I’m very logical and practical. JD’s not. He’s very much the other way. That’s why we work well together.”
Neither one of them, Shultz believes, has ultimate control of the museum’s development. Like death itself, that force seems insurmountable.
“We’re nothing more than guides and caretakers,” she says. “Now it’s become so much more than us. We just stand back and let it grow.”