When you live in a major metropolitan area like L.A., you can get your hands on pretty much any type of food you crave … any foreign, vintage, or cult / indie movie you want to see … and any significant contemporary painter, sculptor or installation artist at MOCA, LACMA, The Broad or Norton Simon Museum.
But as far-and-wide as our tastes can go in a city that’s so diverse, some Angelenos have even more specific interests — and some of them collect enough of those curiosities to fill a museum!
Fortunately, for as many collectors of oddities, there are people who live in and visit Los Angeles that want to go see them.
You might expect some of the wackier collections to be found, say, out in the desert — down the road maybe from the International Banana Museum near the Salton Sea — but you barely have to leave L.A. to see some of our more bizarre exhibits.
From streetscape antiquities to morbid mementos and kitschy curios, here are five oddball places that have reinvented the experience of “going to the museum” in L.A.
1. The Bunny Museum, Altadena
Candace Frazee’s collection of bunnies and bunny-related everything you can think of has finally gotten too big for her home in Pasadena, so she’s moved it to a proper commercial space on Lake Avenue in Altadena. The good news? It now has official hours of operation, which means you no longer need to make an appointment to see it. The even better news? While the collection is still downright overwhelming, the way that Candace has curated the collection into categories makes for a more user-friendly experience. The bunny rabbits still pretty much line the walls from floor to ceiling, but the creatures — which range from dolls and figurines to stuffed animals, pillows, slippers, cookie jars, masks, taxidermy and discarded Rose Parade float pieces — have a little more room to breathe now. Each bunny-related item has a story behind it, and almost all of the pieces in the museum were gifts exchanged between Candace and her husband Steve Lubanski — a tradition that started while they were dating and became a daily ritual, which explains how the collection has grown to over 33,000 items and holds the Guinness World Record for largest collection of rabbit items. You’ll find all the celebrity bunnies represented here — from Bugs Bunny to Peter Cottontail, Brer Rabbit and Roger Rabbit — as well as some other familiar faces (Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse) dressed up like bunnies. There are even real bunnies that you can feed and pet! When you hop on over to Altadena to visit the “hoppiest place in the world,” bring your camera but leave all bags in your car. And while kids are welcome, just make sure everybody keeps their hands to themselves and doesn’t touch the “art.”
2. Dearly Departed Tours, Hollywood
I can’t imagine a more perfect location for Dearly Departed’s new museum and tour headquarters than across the street from Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Recently relocated from Sunset Boulevard, Dearly Departed — known for their “tragical history” tours exploring the dark side of Hollywood and beyond — needed a larger space after having raised enough money to acquire the so-called “Jayne Mansfield death car,” now a centerpiece of the collection of memorabilia related to dead celebrities. From bits of floor tile and actual grave dirt to crime scene tape and funeral service programs, the museum (and its gift shop) tells the gruesome stories of the performers, politicians and other prominent people who’ve each met their untimely demise. You can visit this macabre museum on its own, or you can kill two birds with one stone by buying a special upgraded ticket to one of the Dearly Departed tours — some of which focus specifically on Charles Manson, Marilyn Monroe, The Doors and The Carpenters. Although the subject matter can be disturbing, this museum has been tastefully curated out of a genuine love for Hollywood and its fallen stars — and the museum’s founder, Scott Michaels, is a “die-hard” fan of many of them. Just leave the kids at home for this one.
3. Valley Relics Museum, Chatsworth
Despite the fact that much of it is officially within city limits of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley sometimes gets a bad rap. But many of those who’ve grown up, lived or spent any significant period of time in the Valley have a lot of love for it and pride in it — and a tremendous sense of nostalgia. That’s why the collection of local entrepreneur Tommy Gelinas (who runs a print shop out of North Hollywood) draws such crowds — not only for its open hours on weekends, but also for a number of car shows and other festivals that occur in the parking lot and out back. It’s just a fun place to spend time. Most of what you’ll find at Valley Relics has been rescued from beloved businesses somewhere in the Valley — vintage signs from Henry’s Tacos and The Palomino Club, the “Liberty Bells” from Robinson’s — but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Tommy also loves collecting BMX bikes and swooped in at the last minute to save the Tiffany Theater sign from Sunset and La Cienega before the building was demolished in 2013. While the large (and lit up) items are impressive, take the time to peruse old yearbooks from Valley schools as well as rescued menus from (usually defunct) Valley restaurants to get a sense of the area’s history beyond the liquor stores, car dealerships and hamburger stands (though those are represented here, too). As it has been since opening day, admission is free — though donations (cash or artifacts) are accepted and paid memberships come with swag and special benefits. And given Tommy’s “day job” in the printing business, it’s no surprise that he’s also got a wide variety of Valley-related t-shirts for sale at the museum and online.
4. Velveteria, Chinatown
Velveteria’s proprietors, Carl and Caren, take the art of black velvet paintings very seriously. When you visit, they’ll tell you all about the materials used (natural silk or synthetic being the most common options), the painting techniques (generally oil versus airbrush) and their historical and cultural significance. Although the most common image on a velvet painting throughout the world is Jesus, Velveteria has lots of works of art inspired by pop culture — including film directors (Tarantino, Hitchcock), actors (Jack Nicholson, Steve Buscemi), comedians (like The Three Stooges) and musicians (Liberace, Elvis, Michael Jackson, David Bowie). Its current space in Chinatown only holds about a fifth (or probably even less) of the total number of freaks, nudes, hula girls, toreadors, unicorns and celebrities they've got depicted on velvet. The rest are in storage somewhere, some of which get rotated in and out of the museum somewhat arbitrarily. And the collection keeps growing, as a result of either acquisitions (both contemporary and vintage) or commissions of new work. You can spend a lot of time contemplating the universe in there, especially in the surprisingly meditative black light room.
5. Streetlight Museum, Downtown L.A.
L.A. has kind of a love affair with streetlights. Maybe it started relatively recently, like when LACMA installed its "Urban Light" art installation, which was supposed to be temporary but became so popular that it still stands out front today, facing Wilshire Boulevard. But based on our streetlight designs that date back to the early days of electricity, it appears that our fascination with design in light started long before that. And now, there’s a museum for us streetlight people — on the second floor of the Public Works building, courtesy of the Bureau of Street Lighting. Surrounded by Bureau of Sanitation workers, there's a tiny room that chronicles the history of how L.A. has lit its streets since the early 1900s. This breathtakingly beautiful collection is only open to the public once a month, only by appointment, for only 30 minutes. If you hadn’t noticed already, on your visit you’ll learn that L.A. has had an amazingly wide variety of streetlight styles — and actually still does, among its 200,000 lights standing today. Each of the 400 styles have come to define certain areas — and, in some cases, certain streets — like the "5 Globe Llewellyn" of Downtown L.A., circa 1900. Most of them aren't just utilitarian "lights," but bona fide lanterns, lighting the way for wayward L.A. souls, beckoning them across certain bridges, into certain neighborhoods and onto certain streets. These fixtures don't just illuminate the streets below them. They draw the eyes upwards, past their concrete electroliers, to gaze directly at their textured glass globes and occasionally intricate metalwork.