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Ellen Weis in People Magazine

Museum Founder Ellen Weis Says Our Real Cultural Heroes Are Bigger Than Life and Tend to Talk in Jingles

The ancient Egyptians had Isis and Osiris; the Greeks, Zeus and Hera. But what idols do 20th-century Americans worship? According to Ellen Weis, we venerate the likes of "Speedy" Alka-Seltzer, the Jolly Green Giant and the Poppin' Fresh Dough Boy. "They are the icons of our modern culture," she declares. If that's so, Weis is the happy director of these gods' first shrine: San Francisco's Museum of Modern Mythology, containing between 50 and 100 advertising artifacts that will be on the road in a touring exhibit.

Weis, 28, a former assistant editor for a small publishing company, is a recent convert to commercial kitsch. In fact, she says that when she first saw the 300 pieces in the private collection of graphic artist Jeffrey Errick in 1982, "I despised them. I found them ugly and foolish. Then it hit me that these characters do something other than endorse a product. They immortalize heroes and promote values, like the family." Later that year, Weis, Errick and their friend Matthew Cohen, 32, founded the Museum of Modern Mythology. Housed in a warehouse, the unique museum is supported by private and corporate donations and by events including an annual founders' party to which guests come dressed as heroes such as Granny Goose and Mr. Whipple. The collection has grown to more than 3,000 pieces. Some were donated by companies, some discovered by Errick during forays to flea markets and auctions. Many are larger than life: a four-foot-tall cardboard Chiquita Banana in her red ruffled dress and fruit salad turban, and a five-foot Hamm's Beer bear on a revolving pedestal. Others, including a toy Oscar Mayer car shaped like a hot dog and a set of vinyl Campbell's Soup dolls, are crammed into display cases. Some pieces even have detailed bios. The Jolly Green Giant, for example, was born white in 1925 (after being borrowed from a Grimm's fairy tale) to commemorate the introduction of a new kind of pea by the Minnesota Valley Canning Company. The giant turned green in the mid-30's to match the vegetable he symbolized.

This summer, most of these mythological characters were on display at San Francisco's touristy Fisherman's Wharf. During its eight-week run the show attracted more than 15,000 devotees of the new culture. Next month part of the collection will travel to the Seattle Children's Museum for an eight-week stay, and next year it will visit the California Museum of Science and Industry in L.A.

While Weis now views the collection with a convert's zeal ("If we don't save these cultural artifacts, they will disappear"), visitors to the shrine need not. "Thanks," wrote one in the museum log book, "for a greatly needed perspective on cultural absurdity."

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