Don’t expect to visit the International Banana Museum on your next trip to Los Angeles. As appealing as it might be, it has slipped from Tinseltown to the Salton Sea. You won’t find the Museum of Miniatures, Lingerie Museum, Poodles Museum, Foot and Toe Museum or Hopalong Cassidy Museum there, either. They’ve all closed after becoming victims of time and changing fascinations.
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However, if you seek a museum filled with bizarre objects, go no farther than El Dorado Hills.
World Famous Barber Jon’s Room of Curiosities and Oddities (Green Valley Road near the Purple Place) was once listed by Fox News as one of the “18 Weirdest Museums on Earth.” Its curator, barber Jon Rivera, began his collection during an economic downturn in 2008.
He recalled hearing that a man, during a similar recession, paid a dearly-earned dime to see a smelly, decaying whale that P.T. Barnum was transporting across the country. Rivera reasoned that if P.T. Barnum could attract people with dime store museums full of lowbrow art, deformities and weird things, he could do the same at his barber shop.
Rivera began searching for truly unusual objects, locating a FeeJee Mermaid (one of five known to exist in the world, according to Rivera), the same half-humanoid, half-fish creature that Barnum displayed to shocked crowds in 1842. With similar showman’s flair, Rivera cautioned that flash photography is not permitted and the mermaid cannot be removed from its air-tight tank, in order to protect it.
The FeeJee Mermaid’s desiccated and blackened, 150-year-old remains were obtained from another curator who’d found them washed up onto the sand of a Fiji Island. Rivera pointed to a fishing line and hook still strangling the pathetic creature’s neck and its face frozen in a grimace, as if forever taking its final breath.
Once the shock of seeing the FeeJee Mermaid wears off, fascinating discoveries continue. On a tour of his museum, Barber Jon described his finds: a life-sized Yoda from Star Wars fame who wears VIP badges and his 50-year commemorative Ben Ali Shriners fez, the mounted trophy of a Bigfoot head, a vampire bat from 1791 (acquired from a Transylvania museum and sealed within a case made from wood from its original coffin, so as not to risk accidental reanimation), and a working ray gun created by Paul Stewart which Rivera said could “blow up a city block if it falls into the wrong hands, though it is missing a Top Secret item in order to be functional.”
Reaching up to take down “a really cool thing,” Rivera held a framed ceramic and cloth heat shield tile removed from one of the space shuttle Columbia’s vertical stabilizers, prior to its fatal flight. Other curiosities in Barber Jon’s collection include deformed creatures preserved in formaldehyde, skulls, mounted piranhas, a megalodon shark fossil, a mounted boar’s head, whale vertebrae, giant scorpions and spiders, the chain-smoking “black duck” cousin of the Aflack Duck, and a life mask of Abraham Lincoln that was used to model Lincoln’s profile on the penny.
A photograph signed by legendary WWII Marine Corps ace Pappy Boynton and one of a Flying Tiger pilot shooting down a Japanese Zero are elements of militaria found throughout Barber Jon’s. Hanging from the ceiling in frozen dog fights are large models of World War II aircraft, and along the barbershop’s walls are a Hydro 70 Rocket, a samurai sword, a Crossing the Line (equator) certificate from the USS Relief, a Navy hospital ship that was returning wounded sailors and marines from New Calendonia to the mainland in October 1944, a Montegnard crossbow from Vietnam, photos of Saddam Hussein’s palace barbers wearing World Famous Barber Jon T-shirts in the presidential palace’s barbership, a Vietnam era flack vest and ball caps from many military units, including a rare Vietnam-era Navy Seal Team cap.
Rivera also displays a respectable collection of barbershop memorabilia, including straight razors, dating back to the 1700s, including handles of ivory, scrimshaw, silver inlay, early plastic, Bakelite and rare German and Sheffield blades made of “hard steel” by the heirs of those who once crafted battle swords for Teutonic and English knights.
All that’s missing, Rivera imagined, is “something big like a NASA rocket or a piece of taxidermy like a whale or elephant’s skull.” Barber Jon’s Room of Curiosities and Oddities, though it contains some historic objects, is there fundamentally to amuse and distract the barbershop’s patrons. Its exhibits present a mix of authenticity, unabashed hoax and barbershop humor. Its FeeJee Mermaid poster depicts the mermaid sitting on a beach by the sea, with — Rivera emphasizes — a “shell phone” lifted to her ear.
If you have a half-hour to sit around and listen to Rivera’s joking, a haircut is $20. Admission to the museum is free daily, except holidays. California is full of unusual museums. There’s the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorablia, which contains every Pez dispenser ever made and the world’s largest candy dispenser. Two Bigfoot museums reveal Sasquatch in Felton and Willow Creek.
Hop on down to the Bunny Museum in Pasadena or the bizarre Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. The Beat Museum in San Francisco’s North Beach celebrates the Beatnik generation’s influence on art and culture. There is the Pacific Pinball museum in Alameda, Playland Not At The Beach in El Cerrito, Velveteria (all about velvet paintings) in Los Angeles, the Roseville Telephone Museum, and the Museum of Medical History in Sacramento.
If traveling the world in search of weird museums appeals to you, be sure to include the Paris Sewer Museum, the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Japan (Yes, it’s all about Japanese noodles), the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts, the Iceland Phallological Museum in Reykjavic (displaying 80 preserved penises and penis parts), Amsterdam’s Torture Museum, Wisconsin’s Mustard Museum, the Dog Collar Museum at Leeds Castle (UK), the National Museum of Funeral History in Austin, Texas, where you can see caskets made in the shape of a space ship, crab and fish (Oh my!). In Belgium there’s a museum dedicated to French Fries (they’re actually Belgium, not French), a toilet museum in India, a kiwi fruit museum in New Zealand and a Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia.
Of course, if you visit all these museums you’ll eventually end up at that last one, just to figure what went wrong. Instead, head to World Famous Barber Jon’s, right here in El Dorado County to find one of the weirdest collections on Earth. More is found online at barberjons.com.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.