Recently, I realized I was abused as a child. No, I didn’t discover some satanic ritual trauma while going through repressed memory therapy. I visited La MaMa Galleria’s current exhibition Lost Merchandise of the Dreamlanders, which confronted me with an idyllic John Waters-infused childhood I never had–a childhood where I could play tea party with a Desperate Living tea set (rat on a plate included), sneer at other little girls’ boring Barbie dolls with my own Divine doll and dress up for Halloween as Mink Stole’s red-haired, guilty of assholism menace Connie Marble. Sigh…
Inspired by our preeminent filth elder John Waters’ filthiest classics–Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living, Lost Merchandise of the Dreamlanders (Dreamlanders being the merry band of Baltimore townies and juvenile delinquents surrounding Waters) fills La MaMa Galleria with faux toys and other collectibles from these trash magnum opuses. The entryway of La Galleria immediately greets viewers with a display of General Mills ‘Double Trouble Crunch’ and Collectible Character Rings by Sung-Yong Ahn and Nazareth Horner. The pedestal features a bowl of “cereal” that resembles cat food and apparently tastes like it too, given the nearby box, emblazoned with Dawn Davenport’s image, which boasts salmon and trout flavors. It also has rings that look like all our favorites from Female Trouble from Dawn Davenport to Edith Massey’s Aunt Ida and one of Dawn’s partners in crime Chicklette.
Nearby, a label explains wonky tidbits about this collectible history. It reads: “One Female Trouble collectible character ring came in each box of ‘Double Trouble Crunch.’ This giveaway spawned one of the most sought-after Dreamlander collectibles to date. In late 1974, 1 in 24 boxes contained an ‘Aunt Ida’ ring incorrectly labeled as “Chicklette” This error was quickly corrected, and now the misprinted ring can cost a serious collector anywhere from $800-$1,200.”
Of course, none of that dorky tale is true. It’s all a ruse–a scam. The entire show, at once, mimics the nutty obsessiveness of vintage toy collectors and draws on the trash aesthetic championed by Waters himself through seemingly mass-produced kitsch. It’s like Antique Roadshow for the criminally insane. Some exhibitions were just made for Filthy Dreams.
Lost Merchandise of the Dreamlanders is the brainchild of Tyson Tabbert who not only curated the show but created and collaborated on many of the works. Apparently, according to an interview with NewNowNext, Tabbert, at one point, wanted to see if he could legitimately start producing these items with the go-ahead from Warner Brothers. He explained, “I was initially able to contact someone at Warner Brothers to discuss the possibility of making the figures legit…But the possibility of licensing them was, as I interpreted, slim at best.” What a pity!
Instead, Tabbert embarked on this years-long, wildly fixated, entirely self-financed fanaticism project. Thank god, because the world really does need Divine dolls. And yes, Waters knows about them, telling The Baltimore Sun, “I think they are wonderful…He did a lovely job and he’s a great kid.
Walking through the gallery is akin to a dizzying hallucination for any John Waters fanatic, inspiring lust, desire and just a small urge to steal. In the center of the gallery, there’s a display of action figure playsets corresponding to scenes from Female Trouble including the eponymous Christmas morning “cha cha heels” incident and Dawn’s final acceptance speech in the electric chair. Near another wall, a bed sits with Pink Flamingos Perma-Prest Bed Sheets, done in a nauseating pink color with portraits of Babs, Connie and Raymond Marble and even, Crackers. Can you imagine resting your weary head near Edith the Egg Lady in her crib? I can! Why if you want a quick morning cigarette, you can just place a Lobstora ashtray by the bed. Nothing says smoke break like a rape-y lobster from Multiple Maniacs!
Perhaps the most staggering inclusion is a set of Goldberg Company Divine Character Dolls, corresponding to Divine’s stints in Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, as well as her disco career (billed here as “The Disco Star”). Each box boasts, “The most beautiful woman in the world!” And who could deny it! Not only wearing her seminal sleazily skimpy outfits on her…ahem…generous frame, these dolls, made by Kyle Lords, Tyson Tabbert, Misty Greer, Stela Licina and Jaik Puppyteeth, have all Divine’s demented details down pat. For example, Female Trouble Divine looks as if she got lit aflame, corresponding to poor Dawn’s acid burns that elevated her criminal beauty in the film.
Of course, it’s only appropriate that Divine, or any other Dreamland character, would be turned into a doll considering Waters’s own adoration for them. We, here at Filthy Dreams, know this firsthand. During a book signing of Role Models at Gagosian Gallery’s uptown bookstore, Marion and I took our favorite doll Carol Ann because she really wanted a picture with John. Well, he gladly obliged, snarling, “You KNOW I love DOLLS!” We did! And yet, we were still starstruck.
However, it’s not just the toys themselves that make the exhibition so stunning. The various pieces of merchandise are almost pathologically perfect. Even the toy boxes have a worn quality that adds to the faux-vintage aesthetic. Everything really does look as if it was made in the 1970s. It’s this sheer obsessiveness that pushes the show beyond mere fan art. As Waters himself says, “Life is nothing if you’re not obsessed.”
In fact, the entire exhibition is almost a cohesive art installation in and of itself, woven together by the false labels. These labels narrate the history of each of the so-called collectibles, which makes the exhibition feel like a tacky roadside museum or the most unhinged garage sale you’ve ever stopped by.
For example, the label for the Goldberg Company Divine Character Dolls reads:
“The Goldberg Company (those responsible for the original 1978 Dolly Parton doll) fashioned an impressive set of four Divine character dolls in 1984. While the full line was on shelves in time for Christmas, most never made it under the tree. Most units were left unsold, even after being discounted as much as 90%. Goldberg was banking on Divine’s disco career creating the necessary interest to sustain the line, but it was an appeal that did not translate in the toy department. It appeared that American girls under 12 were not ready for this kind of Barbie, which is unfortunate given Goldberg’s future plans to add six more figures to the line. Upcoming fictionalized Divine characters included Astronaut Divine, Party Girl Divine, Divine as Shirley Temple, President Divine, Waitress Divine (Dawn Davenport) and Surf’s Up Divine.”
If only I could purchase Divine as Shirley Temple, my life would be complete. Not only just coveting these nonexistent items, the labels, and their bizarre histories, start to make you wonder: is this true?
In addition to treading the line between reality and fiction, Lost Merchandise of the Dreamlanders also directly corresponds to Waters’s own iconic trash aesthetic. I mean, aren’t collectibles some of the trashiest things you can own? All trashy homes need some sort of staggering tchotchke collection such as Precious Moments. This is the same, only with capital punishment.
In many ways, these collectibles are a throwback to the formative years of trash post-World War II during the development of kitschy mass-produced gewgaws. In The Banality of Degradation: Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the Trash Aesthetic, Simon Warner dates the beginning of the trash aesthetic to the “rise of a transient and high impact culture in the post-Second World War period, broadly an era of relative material plenty in the West which saw us enter times in which the art interests of the elite and the folk practices of ordinary people were essentially marginalized, if not superseded in many instances, by the powerful presence of a democratized experience, one constructed on the premise of mass production and mass consumption aided by the power of mass promotion.” This trash was “based on extravagant display and featured a strong note of the temporary.”
It’s certainly no mistake that Waters’s own aesthetic directly derives from his childhood enjoyment of B-movies by the Kuchar Brothers and Russ Meyer, as well as his chosen soundtrack of rockabilly and Motown tunes from the era Warner describes. Tabbert’s exhibition too pays tribute to this rise of throwaway culture, only through consumer-driven trash.
It’s possibly this gaudy throwback, as well as the sheer precision of the works, that allows Lost Merchandise of the Dreamlanders to traffic a strange nostalgia for a demented childhood that never was–one that most certainly would concern parents. I don’t know about you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, but I would much have preferred a Divine doll to an American Girl doll.
The show makes you feel not only nostalgic for Waters’s sordid classics, but also wistful for a childhood that you never could have experienced anyway. It’s impossible not to imagine coming down the stairs on Christmas morning and finding a Taffy outfit under your tree! Maybe even you and your mother could reenact the scene in which Dawn tells Taffy she is “most definitely retarded.”
Luckily, though, all the items are for sale, even on the website. This means that it’s only going to take one drunken night for me to decide I really need a Female Trouble action figure. But, the problem is: how do I choose? Do I get Aunt Ida in her becoming laced-up outfit? Or do I get Dinner Party Taffy who comes with a bowl of spaghetti? What about Cookie Mueller’s Concetta? Or Dancer Dawn? I want them all!