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Allee Willis, queen of kitsch

The songwriter takes to the Internet to share her undying yen for pop culture items.

September 14, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal

A simple scan of songwriter-artist-video director-designer Allee Willis' home is visual rhapsody. A plastic Mr. T piggy bank circa 1983 with painted-on yellow bling is perched on a shelf in the rec room. A pink magazine rack of spun spaghetti metal, made to look like a poodle, is positioned between a pair of shaggy pink couches covered in plastic. On a side table is a squished beer bottle disguised as an ashtray, which renders the colloquialism "Sock it to me" in psychedelic blue. A bottle of Farrah Fawcett creme rinse and conditioner by Faberge is nearby.

This is where kitsch goes to die.

"It's a lot to take in, huh?" said Willis, 59, her geometric hairstyle offsetting her wacky mishmash of micro-patterned pants and a flowery top.

And now the kitsch kaleidoscope is expanding with today's opening of the Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch. But this is not a traditional museum with a limited exhibition space and "no flash photography" restrictions. This museum lives online.

The virtual depository at www.awmok.com aims to give social networking the kitsch effect. A selection of items from Willis' colossal private collection will be showcased. Taking the virtual experience a step further, visitors can submit digital images and descriptions of their own kitsch treasures, which Willis will curate and add to the museum's collection. And over at the aptly titled "Kitschenette" section, kitsch aficionados can interact with other like-minded kitsch lovers including Willis.

Buzz has already generated on the museum's Facebook page, where Willis currently cross-promotes her blog, Kitsch 'o the Day. The catalog of daily entries showcases an item from Willis' collection and explains its induction into the kitsch hall of fame. And there's plenty to chronicle.

The Willis fun house in Valley Village is a wonderland that is so overwhelming it requires double takes. The music luminaries she's collaborated with over the years are no exception. It left James Brown spellbound back in the day. Bob Dylan too.

Willis, whose compositions include Earth, Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland" and what she calls the "very kitschy" "Friends" theme song, purchased the 1937 MGM "party house" in 1980 after her first hit record, "September," another Earth, Wind & Fire ditty. Multicolored bowling balls lie in the cactus garden. A desk drawer in her makeshift music studio holds the last marijuana stash owned by Sammy Davis Jr. -- who is, she says, "kitsch no matter how you cut the cake." In the downstairs rec room are a Bobby Darin and Scripto pen promotional set (four songs, eight ink cartridges and one pen for $1.39) and a quartet of talking Monkees dolls.

And that's just the tip of the kitsch iceberg; an off-site 2,000-square-foot-storage garage is jampacked with hundreds more kitschy goodies.

So what's Willis' definition of "kitsch"?

"It's different from the broad definition of kitsch," said the Grammy winner. "I think when most people say kitsch they think of something very gaudy or overwrought, sometimes in bad taste. Mine is a kind of glorification of pop culture where someone came up with an idea that was very original that probably a zillion people said, 'That's ridiculous. You could never do that. No one will ever buy that.' And then you end up with something like the Snuggie . . . that blanket thing. That to me is kitsch."

Willis was born in Detroit in 1950 and would spend her Saturdays in her father's scrap yard "climbing 40-foot piles of old toilets and crushed cars."

"I just always loved old stuff," Willis said. "I loved the fact that stuff was owned by other people. . . . I'm more interested in what the object does to the person than I am in the object itself."

But it wasn't until she graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1969 and moved to New York that she began accumulating quirky collectibles. It started with "teeny little toys; anything from vintage charms to old gum ball machines -- mainly because that's all I had room for." Then there was the $5 "I Love Lucy" bath set for Little Ricky, fully loaded with a clothespin and a bar of soap. She was hooked.

As a songwriter, she shared a Grammy for the Pointer Sisters hit "Neutron Dance," which was part of the "Beverly Hills Cop" soundtrack. But she's done more than write popular music. She's an artist whose motorized artworks and paintings have adorned some of the city's swankier homes and bistros. She designs furniture and clothing. And she throws outlandish parties that, on their own, are works of art.

"When I first met Allee, I was sort of thinking she was an Andy Warhol type of figure," said Mark Blackwell, co-founder of Nylon magazine, who is collaborating with Willis on her virtual museum. "The more I've gotten to know her, she's almost like a Martha Stewart type of figure as well. We call her Martha Warhol because there's so much about her that's 'live your life to its fullest and express yourself.' . . . You can see that Allee lives her art."

Over the years, she has become a guru when it comes to recognizing kitschy items. She rummages flea markets and yard sales. She religiously scours EBay, which has become a one-stop shop for all her kitschy needs.

And frugality is key. Many items in her home set her back only a few dollars. But sometimes exceptions are necessary, especially when a painting on velvet is involved. Like a piece in her music studio: It's of a musician banging on drums, with tiki posts in the backdrop. Light panels with crushed tinfoil over Christmas lights accentuate its kitschy-ness. Asking price? $90.

It's worth it, Willis says.

"To me, there's nothing more deadly than just walking the safe middle ground," Willis said. "And with kitsch . . . there's nothing middle about it."

--

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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