Valley Relics Museum founder and curator Tommy Gelinas. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)
The Valley Relics Museum in Chatsworth is a shrine to the everyday things that, decades ago, may have seemed disposable, but defined 20th century life in the area. It’s a clearinghouse of the all-American pop culture that existed in the group of 33 neighborhoods — communities like Tarzana, Reseda and Van Nuys — that comprise what has become known simply as "The Valley."
It’s a busy Saturday morning at the Museum, a nondescript warehouse tucked away on a street of nondescript warehouses. A man has just arrived bearing an exciting and culturally significant donation.
A bell from Taco Bell.
Chatsworth native John Both is carrying a weathered plastic bell he has had for over 30 years. Someone spray-painted it blue once, but the provenance is unimpeachable.
It came “from the roof of the Taco Bell in Chatsworth,” he says. “A friend of mine climbed up and took it. I had it hanging from the roll bar of my truck for a long time. I figured he’d like to have it.”
The “he” in question is Valley native Tommy Gelinas, a custom T-shirt designer by trade who founded the museum with his own collection of Valley ephemera 17 years ago. Tommy loves the bell.
“This is part of that pop culture coolness that has slowly disappeared,” says Gelinas, gazing at the bell like it’s a piece of long-lost treasure. Which for him, it is.
Gelinas became obsessed with preserving the Valley he knew growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The long-gone ice cream stands, fast food joints, cocktail lounges and record stores that seemed mundane decades ago have become things of significance.
“And as I started to look for it, I realized that the Valley has been striped of its history, and there really is no preservation,” he says.
That history has a safe haven here. Gelinas has over 15,000 items crammed into this 5,000-square-foot warehouse, and it’s a dazzling parade of cultural eye candy.
“Here we're not claiming to be the Smithsonian,” Gelinas admits. “What it is, it's kind of like a resting place for our local history."
That includes western tailor Nudie Cohn’s ’65 Bonneville wagon with chrome pistols and steer horns mounted on the hood. It includes props and costumes from locally shot B-grade westerns, and artifacts from low-budget sci-fi and monster movies. Cool stuff and plenty of it.
But it’s not all kitsch. Gelinas pays tribute to the aerospace and auto industries, back when Lockheed and GM ruled the Valley. Yeah, they made Camaros here.
The museum may not be filled with antiques, but collecting artifacts from the recent past still took some doing.
“It's a lot easier for me to find something from the 1800s than it is to find a picture from a mall that opened in the ‘70s,” Gelinas explains.
And shining down on everything are dozens of enormous neon signs rescued from scrap heaps and forgotten warehouses, brought back to life to hum and glow you into the past, whether you lived through it the first time around or not.
“I was born in 1998, so I think it's really cool that all this stuff from this period of time is like in one place,” says Lucy Giles. She’s visiting from Long Beach with her friend, Vinnie Tauzer. “It’s not like typical stuff, it’s more rare, sub-pop culture stuff.”
“They got a Del Taco ashtray!” gushes Tauzer. “That’s pretty cool!”
It is pretty cool. But the humble Valley — beleaguered home to earthquakes, porn and high-speed cop chases — has often been a harder sell in the cool department. Yet it’s a place Gelinas is prepared to defend.
“The Valley has been talked down, but think about anyplace else in the world where you can open a yearbook and go, 'Oh, Marilyn Monroe went to Van Nuys, Robert Redford went to Van Nuys,' you had Ronnie James Dio living in Encino. I can go on and on about how many famous people lived here.”
A lot of residents, famous and otherwise, have donated artifacts to the museum, which is a nonprofit and charges no admission.
“It is a definitely a labor of love,” says Gelinas, “and I think the Valley deserves it, you know? A lot of people kind of go, ‘Oh my God, the Valley.’ But there is a lot of history here, and once you come to the Valley Relics Museum, you go, ‘You know what? I've never really seen the Valley in this light.’ ”