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Odd Uncouple

American Dime Museum Loses Founding Partner and May Lose its Home

Michael Northrup
Shocked and Estranged: (from left) James Taylor and Dick Horne have agreed to disagree over the American Dime Museum's future.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/26/2003

The noontime crowd is thick inside the American Dime Museum on Thursday, Nov. 20. Folks stream through the 4-year-old collection of antique oddities (and gaffed replicas of antique oddities) that re-create the wonder and wackiness of 19th-century museums and midway sideshows.

But then they aren't here to see the two-faced calf, the nine-foot-tall Peruvian "mummy," or the desiccated "flesh-eating toad." The people tromping through 1806 and 1808 Maryland Ave., the pair of interconnected rowhouses the museum calls home, glance perplexedly at these curiosities. They are more interested in the walls and floors and the buildings' other physical attributes. The two addresses, along with an adjacent vacant rowhouse at 1804 Maryland Ave., are about to be put on the auction block.

And by 2 o'clock it's over. The three buildings, as a group, are sold to high bidder Javed Nasir for $255,000 (plus a 10 percent bidding fee). Outbid is artist Dick Horne, the museum's co-founder who hoped to acquire the properties to assure that the quirky repository, currently on a month-to-month to lease, could stay put. Immediately after the auction, Nasir says he bought the buildings as "an investment," but can't say what his plans for them are--or if the American Dime Museum figures in their future. Horne says he'll relocate the museum if necessary, but hopes it doesn't come to that. (Nasir could not be reached for further comment; Horne reports, however, that Nasir told him that nothing would change at the addresses for "six months to a year.")

If the museum faces an uncertain future in the only home it's ever had, events in the recent past have had a more permanent effect on the entity's makeup. James Taylor, publisher of the 8-year-old sideshow/novelty entertainment journal Shocked and Amazed and Horne's founding partner in the museum, recently removed all of his artifacts from the museum--including Fivey, a freeze-dried beagle deformed so as to appear to have five legs, and a stuffed "unicorn" (actually a single-horned goat that used to perform in the Ringling Bros. circus). Professional relations between the pair of oddity enthusiasts are now severed.

"The museum is behind me now," Taylor says. "[It was] a wonderful and glorious thing that a rather brilliant Baltimore artist and I created from scratch, which for four years was a landmark in Baltimore. Now it's going to be whatever it's going to be, and I'm not associated with it."

The beginning of the end occurred this summer when, amid declining patronage and following a season of runaway heating bills, the museum's shaky financial footing began to wear on Horne. The bulk of the museum's income came from the $5 admission fee, which largely covered expenses but provided no significant compensation for Horne, who spent much of his time manning the assemblage. (In addition to producing Shocked and Amazed, Taylor has a full-time state job and teaches part-time at a community college.)

"I've been doing this as a full-time job with no pay," Horne says. "I could only do it for so long. I felt we had to change, and I saw putting in a major gift shop as a way to bring in some funds."

The museum always had a small sales counter offering toys, trinkets, and T-shirts, but it never added much to the bottom line. Horne, who ran an antique business out of 1808 Maryland Ave. for five years prior to the Dime's founding, proposed over the summer expanding the retail operations to include "antiques related to the museum business," his own gaffed curiosities, shells, minerals, and "things in domes and things in glass boxes."

Taylor doesn't "begrudge [Horne's] need to make a buck" and acknowledges his former partner "worked his ass off" at the museum. However, he was uncomfortable with the museum both selling sideshow artifacts and displaying them. Some of the items in Taylor's collection were gifts from showpeople he'd forged personal relationships with while chronicling their lives in the pages of Shocked and Amazed.

"I can't be taking donations from showpeople and be associated with an operation that literally sells almost identical items," Taylor says. "Accusations could be made that we were selling their stuff."

Unable to come to an agreement over the museum's new direction, the pair dissolved their partnership over the past few months, divvying up artifacts they had bought together. Horne originally planned to continue to operate a museum on Maryland Avenue, possibly condensed into the one building (1808 Maryland Ave.) that he hoped to buy from its owner. (A wrinkle in these plans came earlier this fall when the owner died and his estate opted to auction off the buildings.)

Perhaps the greatest blow to the peacefulness of the breakup occurred Nov. 5, when a Sun article stated emphatically that "the American Dime Museum was no more." Horne was not interviewed for the piece, which was largely based on a Nov. 3 e-mail Taylor sent to various friends of the museum, which stated, "As of Halloween, the American Dime Museum--as that institution opened to the public on Nov. 1, 1999, by my partner, Dick Horne, and me--closed its doors to the public."

"When I saw that article I went ballistic," says Horne, who contacted the Sun writer and explained his side of the story for a follow-up piece that appeared the next day. The articles served to highlight a bone of contention between the museum founders. Taylor wanted the name "American Dime Museum" to end with the partnership, preferring that Horne choose a new name for his new museum. Horne, however, says he "never agreed to that."

Earlier this month, a band of volunteers helped Taylor remove his artifacts, along with his nearly 3,000-volume research library dedicated to sideshow and novelty entertainment. Some of Taylor's more notable artifacts--including Fivey and the "unicorn"--will be loaned for display at two different venues in New York: the lobby of the SoHo theater running the sideshow-celebrating show Todd Robbin's Carnival Knowledge, and the Palace of Variety, a Times Square museum and theater run by the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus variety-entertainment troupe. Taylor hopes to find a local home for his items and library but is not yet at liberty to discuss the particulars of such a possibility.

Horne, meanwhile, has made up for the loss of Taylor's pieces with additional items of his own, and he has even bought back some of the gaffed creations he had made and sold to local collectors. Indeed, the museum seems as colorfully crowded with curiosities as ever. (Even Taylor acknowledges that "it looks pretty good.") The museum is open it usual Wednesday-through-Sunday hours. On Jan. 10, the museum will present a retrospective of Betsy the Chimp's artwork (Betsy being the Baltimore Zoo primate who created finger paintings back in the 1950s). Horne is also seeking 501(c)3 tax-exempt status for the museum, which would allow him to seek foundation money and grants--both of which he says may be necessary if the museum is ultimately forced to relocate.

Taylor didn't attend the recent auction but was surprised by how much the buildings sold for. He's pessimistic about the museum's long-term future on Maryland Avenue. "Having paid that kind of money, I don't think there's any way the [new owner] will let the museum stay there," he says. "It just doesn't bring in enough money."

Although Taylor's departure was not without its rocky moments, he wishes Horne well as he soldiers on alone. "If he can keep the museum special with just himself there, more power to him," Taylor says. "Long may he wave."

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