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Frederick's uplifting museum is dismantled

When the store moved to a new location, there was no longer any room for Madonna's bustier, Tom Hanks' boxers or Natalie Wood's bra.

December 19, 2006|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Holiday shoppers will find seductive stocking stuffers and naughty gifts at Frederick's of Hollywood's flagship store on Hollywood Boulevard. The silky chemises, outrageously tiny thong panties and lacy brassieres are all there, many offered in bright Christmas red and New Year's Eve black.

But where is the mannequin of Milton Berle in his drag dressing gown? Where is Madonna's black and gold bustier? Where is Mae West's marabou-bedecked negligee?

To the consternation of some local kitsch lovers and underwear fetishists, Frederick's of Hollywood quietly dismantled its Lingerie Museum and Celebrity Lingerie Hall of Fame when the underwear emporium moved three blocks west last year to a more upscale location.

Nevertheless, some guidebooks and tourism websites still list the vanished displays. And visitors still ask for the small and unusual museum, which was founded in 1987 and featured, at various times, Natalie Wood's bra from "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," Tom Hanks' boxers from "Forrest Gump," Susan Sarandon's garter belt from "Bull Durham" and Tony Curtis' cross-dressing dainties from "Some Like It Hot."

"A nice, free attraction that was fun to visit" is the way Robert Nudelman, an activist in Hollywood Heritage, a preservation group, described the museum inside the former store. "It did have its place in local color and scene here and it did have an impact in bringing in visitors."

Nudelman recalled its moment of international fame during the 1992 riots, when looters invaded and stole a bustier Madonna had worn on a concert tour, along with a lot of retail merchandise. (Madonna later reportedly gave a replacement in exchange for a Frederick's cash donation to a charity.)

The new shop, on Hollywood Boulevard by the corner of McCadden Place, is closer to the Highland Avenue tourism buzz than it used to be. Decked out with crystal chandeliers and leopard rugs, it projects a more elegant tone in which, museum fans suspect, Ethel Merman's girdle might not fit.

Philip Ferentinos, co-owner of Red Line Tours, which offers walking tours of Hollywood, said the museum in Frederick's old purple, pink and gray Art Deco building "was always something of interest, one of the more unusual features of the boulevard."

His regularly scheduled tours would point out Frederick's but not stop inside. That was reserved, he recalled, "for special groups or underwear lovers of the world."

Company spokeswoman Jennifer Cornwall said the new store did not have room for the museum, so most of the items were packed off to a warehouse in Phoenix.

Frederick's officials are "trying to figure out some creative ways" to move some of the pieces back to Hollywood in the future, she said. The company declined to release information about individual historic undies until a proper inventory is completed; then the firm will decide "what to do from there," she said.

"It was great to have this historic value in Hollywood, but we are also trying to update the look of the product and of the store," Cornwall said.

Meanwhile, she said, visitors to the new store can see displays of bras and corsets designed by celebrities for charity auctions sponsored by Frederick's. Seven are now exhibited, including ones by Halle Berry (think faux feline skins) and Sharon Stone (a lot of butterflies).

A shop employee said tourists still ask about the missing museum. "We've got to do something about the guidebooks," said the worker, who asked not to be identified. While the museum had glamour, it also attracted visitors who bought either nothing or the cheapest items, the employee said.

A pioneer of black lingerie and the push-up bra, Frederick Mellinger founded his business in 1946 in New York and moved it to Los Angeles a year later. One of the museum's displays included a photo of Mellinger and his comment on how a certain bra in the 1960s transformed a woman: "Came in looking like a Chevy and left looking like a Cadillac."

Also exhibited were early bras produced by Frederick's, including the black lace Rising Star -- made to deepen cleavage -- and others named Peek-a-Boo and Bird Cage.

Mellinger, who died in 1990, was "a genius, not a dirty old man" recalled Ruth Frolove, the chain's longtime bra buyer and unofficial early curator of the museum. She sought to counter old complaints about tawdriness: "Why should anything about that be offensive? It's garments women wear every day," said Frolove, now retired in Temecula.

The company's racy inventory held it in good stead until financial problems, overexpansion and competition from Victoria's Secret, among other things, led to a filing for bankruptcy protection in 2000. Since then, Frederick's has been reorganized and is on the rebound.

Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said he has not heard a peep of protest about the museum's closure. Instead, he said how happy he was that Frederick's remained committed to the neighborhood and renovated another storefront.

"The fact they stayed and kept the retail business on Hollywood Boulevard was more important," he said.

The old location is being renovated for a dining and entertainment center that could open late next year, according to its developer Michael Viscuso, who runs nightclubs in San Diego and Long Beach.

Meanwhile, the roll-down security gate retains touches of Hollywood nostalgia, with drawings of Norma Shearer and Eva Gabor.*

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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