I’d be lying if I said visiting Bob Burns’ museum was a dream come true. After all, who even dares to dream of holding the original King Kong armature in their hands? And yet within minutes of arriving at Bob’s Burbank home one of the most unique and priceless movie artifacts of all time was in my hands. And since I was shaking, it got put down immediately. But a little later I ended up holding that big metal skeleton again, making Kong’s mouth open and close, just as Willis O’Brien had done in 1933.
Your humble writer holding something so amazing it almost made him pee himself.
You wouldn’t expect the greatest treasure trove of genre memorabilia to be in such an unsuspecting house in the Valley. Nestled on a quiet suburban street, the house Bob shares with his wife Kathy looks like just about any other in America. But then you go around the back and step into an astonishing wonderland of props, costumes and memorabilia.
My visit to Bob’s museum was technically part of Wolfman Week here at CHUD. See, Bob’s collection began when he was 13 years old and ended up the owner of the head of Lawrence Talbot’s wolf cane; the head appears silver in the movies but is actually made of rubber, so that Lon Chaney Jr wouldn’t get hurt when Claude Raines beat him to death with it at the end of The Wolf Man. I can only imagine the energy and enthusiasm that 13 year old kid must have had, since at 74 Bob has more energy and enthusiasm than most young people I know. Bob’s interest in genre films and props came at a time when nobody took that stuff seriously, and much of his collection is made up of items salvaged from the junk man. The flying saucer from The Day The Earth Stood Still (with a modified lower half, since it was re-used in a Twilight Zone episode*) hangs over Bob’s museum; he got that as Fox was about to throw it in the trash.
Curt Siodmak, writer of the original The Wolf Man, left, with Bob Burns and the Wolf Man cane.
A close up of the cane head. It’s rubber, but someone made a cast of it and created a pure silver version that Bob now owns and can, presumably, use to kill werewolves.
Over the years Bob has become what Joe Dante calls the Guy Montag of Hollywood, carrying a thousand stories – all engaging, illuminating and usually amazing – in his head. He’s a raconteur, a born storyteller, and he’s been everywhere, known everyone and seen everything. Listening to Bob talk is like disappearing right back into the history of Hollywood, and each of his stories contains a few extra nuggets that will intrigue and delight fans of movies. On the day I visited Bob’s museum I had tickets for the final performance of The Pee Wee Herman Show and I really considered simply giving them up and spending more time listening to incredible tales, like the one about the time Bob spent hours at the Magic Castle with Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr and Elsa Lanchester waiting for a photographer to show up. Can you imagine sitting around a table with those three?
What’s funny is that while I only became aware of Bob in recent years, I’ve known him all my life. Among the many things Bob has done in Hollywood is working as an ape suit performer, and he was one of the stars of the 1970s live action Filmation The Ghost Busters TV show, playing Tracy the ape opposite Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch. Weirdly obsessed with Storch as a boy, I was an ardent fan of the show. Bob still does some ape suit work – look for him in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavara director Larry Blamire’s new film, Dark and Stormy Night. When Bob heard that Larry was doing an old fashioned haunted house movie he informed Larry that all the great old haunted house movies had a gorilla in them somewhere, so Larry wrote him a part.
Bob’s museum was in a bit of a state of disarray when I visited; a recent water main break had necessitated things getting moved around, but even in the best of times Bob’s museum is a wonderful jumble. When he first visited the museum years ago, my friend Paul Prischman said he couldn’t tell what was crap and what was priceless, and it remains true to this day. Bob had the original Grumpy from the TV series Land of the Lost nestled amid more mundane items like a Planet of the Apes Caesar DVD bust and some plastic store bought models of the creature from It! The Terror From Beyond Space. I totally passed by Grumpy three times without realizing that he was an honest to god artifact. And to get to Grumpy I almost stepped on the hand of the torn in half Bishop from Aliens, who is just laying on the floor at the base of the King Kong armature. Grumpy is part of a massive display of figures that obscures your view of a display case that contains C3P0’s original feet, a screen-used Ghidra head, the cane topper from The Wolf Man, an original Zanti Misfit from The Outer Limits and a miniature building from Escape from New York. Hanging over this case, also partially obscured by figurines is the original matte painting of the Moon from George Pal’s landmark Destination Moon. This is just one tiny, cramped corner of the museum.
What’s really special about the museum is how much of it is tactile. I didn’t just hold Kong in my hands, I held Glenn Strange’s boot from Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and got to hold his Frankenstein Monster head piece as well (with the wig off the piece you can see the the Monster’s forehead staples go all the way to the middle of his flat skull!). I touched the full wolf from An American Werewolf in London and held Ripley’s Alien helmet in my hands. I felt the fur of multiple screen-used Gizmos from Gremlins. I ran my hand across the surface of the original Space Jockey miniature from Alien and held the T1000 spiked arm from Terminator 2. The way you can actually interact with this stuff at Bob’s museum really captures not just the spirit of Bob – he loves sharing these things with people – but also the spirit of genre film. It’s not meant to be hidden away on a shelf, but to be manhandled and loved in person. Of course there’s the down side; Bob has opened his museum on Halloween to local kids and recently had the self-destruct key stolen out of the original Mother unit from Alien. He sent an original Xenomorph head from Aliens and RoMan’s helmet from Robot Monster to a convention and both were returned damaged. It’s sad when people can’t show even the slightest amount of respect to the props or to the wonderful man who shares them.
A row of screen used Xenomorph heads from the Alien films. The original Alien is in the foreground; right in front of his face is a component of Mother. Way at the back is the Queen Alien from Aliens. Below them is an assortment of facehuggers and other Alien stuff (including a flashlight whose battery and bulb have never been changed but still worked fine on Sunday), as well as Jones the cat’s carrying case – complete with Jones (the fake one they used)!
When you’re the living memory of Hollywood you make some great friends. Bob’s known Rick Baker for years, and in fact his collection includes the very first mask Baker ever made. Peter Jackson flew Bob out to New Zealand for a cameo in the new King Kong; Bob brought the Kong armature and was stopped at customs – X-rays of his baggage made them think the old guy was smuggling baby skeletons. Later Jackson would make an incredible gesture for Bob; Bob’s favorite film is Destination Moon – it was the first set he had been on, and he became good friends with George Pal (Bob’s museum furniture is Pal’s old dining room set!) – and when the control panels of the rocket from the film came up for auction at Profiles in History, Bob couldn’t afford the $12,000 dollars to buy them. He was resigned to never having these panels when, a month later, a package arrived. It was the panels, which Jackson had bought for him.
You also lose some great friends. Glenn Strange, who played the Frankenstein Monster in some classic Universal movies, was like a father figure to Bob. Glenn was one of the few people who was there for Lon Chaney Jr at the end; Lon had a bad drinking problem, and he had burned a lot of bridges. He was laid up with throat cancer, just like his famous father, dying in a seaside shack, mostly broke and alone. Glenn got a call that Lon didn’t have much time and he and Bob went to spend a few hours with the ailing Wolf Man. The two actors shared an affinity for fishing, and Glenn promised they would fish together again. They didn’t; Lon passed away not long after. Chaney had donated his body to science so there was no funeral, but there was to be a memorial service. By this time Glenn was suffering from lung cancer, and was bedridden, but when he heard that no one would speak for Lon at the service he pulled himself from his bed and delivered a eulogy for his friend. Bob has the 16mm film of that moment somewhere in his archive.
The Captain America suit from the serials. Next to him is Captain Marvel aka Shazam; what’s interesting is that his suit is greyscale, since they were shooting in black and white anyway.
I wish I could have stayed longer and listened to more stories. Each tale that Bob told reminded him of another; in just an hour I heard about how he was almost blinded by a snotty kid with lye while making a public gorilla suit appearance with Butch Patrick as Eddie Munster, about how he brought Lon Chaney to the point of tears with one well-placed compliment, the story of Lon getting thrown in jail for a few hours after decking his director on the set of a TV show Western in the 60s, about the time Glenn Strange and Jim Arness reminisced on the set of Gunsmoke about their history as monsters, about bringing George Pal down to the museum to sit in the original, still working Time Machine from the film of the same name, about the time the Smithsonian tried to pass off a recreation of the Kong armature as the real thing, about the time Bob got hazard pay when a gorilla suit stunt on The Lucy Show went wrong … I could go on, and so could have Bob. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to go back with a recorder and get some of Bob’s amazing stories on tape so that I can share them with you, in his voice (the only way to really hear these tales).
In the meantime, I took a whole bunch of pictures while I was at the museum. I wish I had a better camera – next trip I’ll try to bring something higher powered than my iPhone – but more than camera quality it was time that defeated me. For the zillion pictures I took there are a zillion more that remain untaken; I’ve only documented a sliver of Bob’s collection here. For more about Bob’s collection, visit his site by clicking here. And if you really want the inside scoop, you should buy his book, It Came From Bob’s Basement. Unfortunately the book is currently out of print, but maybe enough demand can change that.
This is Part 1. Look for Part 2, with a ton more photos, very soon!