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Prize Possessions

Ojai museum display shows off quirky obsessions of 11 local collectors.


Don't ask Penny Balicki how it all started. She doesn't know for sure. Maybe it was the garage sale she went to 15 years ago where a 50-cent trinket--of a woman with a doo-dad on her head--caught her eye.

A few years later, she was hanging pictures in her kitchen when it struck her that they all featured women with things on their heads--hats, jugs, Carmen Miranda fruit arrangements. It snowballed from there. Now she's got more than 100 photos, cards, statues, dolls, paintings--all women with things on their heads.

"It wasn't intentional," said Balicki, who works in Ojai and lives in Ventura. It's just that friends and relatives started adding to her "collection" on birthdays or holidays. One even brought her a 5-foot carved statue from an Asian trip.

So it's with some sheepishness that she finds her quirky collection part of a new exhibit at the Ojai Valley Museum, which is now at home in an old church that has undergone a head-to-toe makeover.

"It's not like it's a collection of antique thimbles--it's pretty hokey," she said.

When museum director Sherry Smith decided to pull together an exhibit spotlighting what local people collect, she wasn't sure what to expect.

"It's been fun finding out," Smith said. The exhibit includes 11 collections from people in the Ojai Valley--everything from apple peelers to animal traps, Raggedy Ann dolls to anything raccoon-ish. As museum exhibits go, it's unpretentious and viewer-friendly.

The exhibit will be open through April 26, and visitors may also tour the rest of the museum, although the permanent displays--including a diorama with mounted indigenous animals--are not completed.

In the collections exhibit, Marie Neville's assortment of figurines, dishes, toys and other trinkets don't seem to have anything in common, at first glance. But they all share one stunning similarity: They were all made in Japan between 1945 and 1952, when the country was under U.S. occupation. They all bear a stamp that says so.

Neville haunts flea markets and antique shops for these specialty items, and her collection has swelled to 1,600 over the last dozen years. Why this, and not any of a thousand things that people collect?

"I have a dear friend in Oregon who does it," Neville said. "She got me started."

Among her treasures is an intricately carved cigarette box with inlaid designs. When an attached little bird dips his beak, a cigarette pops up.

Al and Carol Gross' passion is baseball, and they're so wild about it that they even have an old seat from Chicago's Comiskey Park. It's on display, along with other memorabilia from their collection: a Chicago Cubs chewing tobacco tin from the 1920s, balls signed by Joe DiMaggio and a few other legends, even those baseball player dolls with the bobbing heads.

Having collected for 10 years, they're feeling pinched for space in their house. "This doesn't make a dent in it," Al Gross said of the small sampling at the museum.

Meanwhile, the rest of the museum, is beginning to take shape. The 1917 chapel will hold the permanent collections, including a small re-created Victorian bedroom.

Another exhibit is just an assortment of everyday things--marbles, hats, dishes--that were in use around the turn of the century when Ojai was called Nordhoff, after a 19th-century author who rhapsodized about the valley.

When it's finished, the diorama will include close to 30 mounted animals and birds prepared by local taxidermist Chuck Testa. The raccoon, bobcat, badger and bear, to name a few, have been donated by fish and game wardens and other outdoors people.

But the coyote had a different source. Sherry Smith's husband accidentally hit and killed one on a back road near Ojai. Thinking diorama, the museum director rushed to the scene.

"I didn't know if it was a good specimen," she said. If luck wasn't with the coyote that day, it was with her.

"I bagged it, threw it in the car and threw it in the freezer when I got home," she said.



Ojai Valley Museum, 130 W. Ojai Ave., downtown Ojai, is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For information, call 640-1390.

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