Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Wedding To Remember

A collector's delight: Teddy bears, Elvis and Nixon convene in new exhibit at Los Altos History

Chopstick holders. Keys. Pez dispensers. Salt cellars. Bookmarks. Music boxes.

Los Altos History Museum Executive Director Laura Bajuk is gleeful as she discusses the objets d' obsession trickling in from around town, all part of the new exhibit on local collectors. "Los Altos Collects." Located at the intersection of public history and private passion, ephemera and memorabilia, art and kitsch, these private collections offer glimpses of the American past, and of the people who preserve it.

"Everyone is just quirky," Bajuk said. "History people really love objects - we are just a very interesting breed of people."

"No collection is complete without a tacky velvet Elvis," Ellen Gonella said, with an equal measure of merriment, as she carried a replica of the King into the museum.

Museum members will get a first peek at the wonders and arcana their Los Altos neighbors have ferreted out and curated all these years at a reception scheduled today. The exhibit opens to the public noon Thursday.

The items visitors can see at the museum represent the tip of the collecting iceberg - contributors like Gonella had to make tough choices about what to bring and what to leave out. In addition to photos, newspapers from the day of Elvis' death and two life-size cardboard cutouts, Gonella is bringing an "Idiot's Guide" to Elvis as a source of reference for the uninitiated.

Gonella herself was too young to get hooked on Elvis during his heyday in the 1950s.

"Being a baby boomer, I grew up on the Beatles and the Beach Boys," she said.

But one day in 1988, she saw a picture of Elvis in the newspaper and found her interest piqued.

"All of a sudden it was like, 'Boom!' Where was he? How had I missed this all these years?" she said.

Almost 20 years later, Gonella makes sure that everyone she meets makes a personal connection with Elvis. Along with Elvis earrings, socks, shirts and handbag, she has dachshunds named Elvis and Priscilla. She belongs to several fan clubs and recently went to see Ballet San Jose's production of "Blue Suede Shoes."

"I see references to Elvis almost every day - it's so weird," she said. "I was in London last week, and they had ceramic figurines of him at Harrods. The salesman said he remembers watching Elvis as a kid."

Gonella breaks out her Elvis jumpsuit for Halloween, though with her diminutive height she makes a less-than-convincing imposter.

"Everybody just smiles when you talk about Elvis - they remember something fun," she said.

Gonella loves her hobby for the connections it helps her make with other people, but she also speaks of Elvis almost as a living persona, a charismatic force of American culture.

"His hardcore fan base is older than me. He needs to attract the younger generation - it is going to take the Internet and marketing," she said.

She is eloquent about how he lives on, morphing between generations. Elvis traditionally makes an appearance at the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, and generations of impersonators have been a fixture of Las Vegas.

Gonella's husband, Paul, hasn't been too put out by the other man in her life. "I'd give the old coon dog a run for his money," he said.

Karen Van Buren's husband, Paul, has adopted a similarly supportive attitude toward her collection of paraphernalia from the 1968 election.

"I've got about 1 percent of what she has," he said, referring to his own stamp and political button collections.

All collectors have to devise some way to limit their expanding cache. Karen did so by focusing on just one election, the first in which she could vote and also a historic time of turmoil in the United States.

Teddy bear maker and collector Carla Bjork found her collecting naturally tapering off recently, and she turned her attention to painting and photography. For Bjork, the bears have been a creative outlet but also a historical storytelling device.

"I use the bears to help tell my own family stories, and to keep my family heritage alive and visible," Bjork said.

She named two antique German Hermann bears after her great-grandparents, Matilda and Heinrich, who were florists to the kaiser in Hamburg in the 1870s. Another bear, Dr. Lou, is named for her grandfather, who developed the whooping cough serum and combined it with the diphtheria and tetanus vaccine. The bear, wearing her grandfather's spectacles, is displayed with Bjork's immunization artifacts.

"I have the original vials of whooping cough serum at home in a little wooden box," Bjork said.

Bjork's bear story begins with a bear tragedy - her childhood darlings, teddies Schnicklefritzer and Theodore, did not survive to adulthood, due to the vicissitudes of life in a family with many siblings.

But Schnicklefritzer lives again. Inspired by a model bear, Bjork, already an able seamstress, signed up for a six-week bear-making class. After that initial class, she became a bear artisan and collector, hand-sewing artist bears and collecting not just replicas of her childhood bears, but also the heirlooms that narrate her family history.

"Each bear has its own personality," she said. They make a room welcoming, she explained. "They feel like friends. They just look like they're going to celebrate."

Bjork looks forward to sharing her knowledge about bear making and collecting, with museum visitors and at the teddy bear picnic scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit. On July 21, young people and adults are invited to bring their teddy bear friends to a teddy bear picnic lunch. The event, recommended for ages 3 to 9, will include arts and crafts and games in celebration of the stuffed companions of the world.

Also in the offing this summer is an Elvis Night, scheduled for Aug. 17, one day after the 30th anniversary of the icon's death. An Elvis impersonator and Elvis-friendly foods (peanut butter and banana sandwiches, perhaps?) are on the menu.

And come Christmastime, museum volunteers plan to cycle in Christmas collections for the exhibit.

For more information, visit www.losaltoshistory.org. To register for the teddy bear picnic, call the museum at 948-9427, ext. 15, and leave a message. The museum is located at 51 S. San Antonio Road. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is free.

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