Ethel Loves… Lou Papalas


When I wrote about the puntasticly, fabulously named Barber Streisand recently, it brought to mind a similar – but more Babtastic – wonder that I heard about some years ago: The Barbra Shop. A regular barbers by day (albeit with Babs stuff on the walls and Babs busts for sale) and a Streisand themed museum by night. I mean. You know? I tried to track down Lou Papalas, the fabulous man behind The Barbra Shop museum collection for that article, but didn’t manage to by deadline. When he got in touch after the fact I told him I simply HAD to interview him for Mermania. As a man with the largest Streisand memorabilia collection in the world, he’s Ethel Mermaids material through and through.

Corinna: How did your love of Babs begin?

Lou: In 1963, my Mom called me into the living room to watch this “kooky girl” on The Mike Douglas show.  I was drawn to her for many reasons—among them, her non-conventional looks and atypical candour as well as a plethora of what seemed self-confidence.

After that a friend gifted me with The Barbra Streisand Album – Barbra’s first… LOVED IT!  Then Barbra was in Funny Girl on Broadway. My buddy (he also loved Barbra) and I both purchased the Broadway Funny Girl album. Not only did we know all the songs, but we used lines (in falsetto) from the musical in our everyday conversations. We would always crack up at the applicability of those lyrics to situations in our lives.

C: How did your collecting begin?

L: I began collecting quite by accident. Initially I obsessively cut out any article I found in magazines or newspapers and stuffed them in my bedroom dresser drawer. If I went to the doctor or dentist and Barbra was on the cover or in a magazine in the waiting room, of course I would take it home with me when I left the office. Soon I began looking for articles, scanning periodicals in hopes of finding more.

Once Barbra starred in Funny Girl on Broadway, starred in her own one woman hour-long TV special, the movie magazines and tabloids chose Barbra as “the celebrity.”  It was so easy for me to collect, however, my collection quickly out grew my dresser drawer. I then purchased a foot locker to accommodate it. All through college, while others were listening to the classic rock beginnings, I had Barbra. My college fraternity brothers teased me about Barbra all the time. Fast-forward to the 90’s. EBay came into my life and collecting Barbra got a whole lot easier and a lot more expensive. I purchased thousands of items from around the world. I had many of them framed to preserve them—hundreds of them. My collection now occupies six 10 x 10 X 15 climate controlled storage units, 9000 cubic feet. My quest to have it all became a reality and fulfil my goal to open a non-profit Barbra Streisand museum/performing arts centre seemed a lot closer. With that in mind, as if my collection wasn’t large enough, I started attending auctions to purchase more Streisand items.

 

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C: What led to your setting up the museum above the Barbra Shop?

L: I retired from a management position at Ford Motor Company in February of 2002.  By that time my collection was an obsession totally out of control and had grown into the tens of thousands. I had also acquired thousands of duplicate and triplicate (and more) of the same item. Some of them were purposefully purchased, but most were purchased only because I kept no written inventory and could not remember if I already had one.  I figured that when I opened my museum, I could sell those duplicate items to raise funds to support it.

April 24 of 2002 was Barbra’s 60th birthday as well as the 50th anniversary of the Caucus Club in Detroit. I befriended the owner of the Caucus Club, the first of Barbra’s non-New York venues. I proposed taking over the décor of the restaurant for a half year which culminated with a Barbra Streisand 60th birthday party and for the anniversary of the Caucus Club. I displayed over 100 items. The rich cherry panelling was the backdrop for beautiful professionally framed Streisand posters, articles and mixed memorabilia. I even had the ladies room painted pink with rose floral accessories.  The owner purchased pink linen tablecloths. The restaurant and my Barbra display was featured in articles and front page stories

My wife and I purchased a winter residence in Palm Desert, California. I had all of the “Streisand stuff” relocated to California from Michigan. After seeing the enjoyment people experienced viewing the items at the Caucus Club, I wanted to create a smallish museum. I did just that and my first location was the “BARBRA SHOP” in Palm Springs California …the Castro of Palm Springs. It was a barber shop by day and a Barbra museum by night. The walls were entirely covered from floor to ceiling with framed posters and significant display items. Additionally, mannequins with different Streisand hairstyles from her career were placed throughout the shop. The barbers wore black Barbra Streisand T-shirts and to complete the mood, Barbra albums provided background music and the TV showed Barbra movies. This clever shop became an international Palm Springs tourist destination and during evenings, after the barbers departed, from 6pm to 10pm many display items were added and the barber shop was transformed into a Barbra Shop Museum.

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C: Why and when did that have to close?

L: Our landlord had legal problems and we needed to vacate. Initially the shop moved to a downtown location, not easily seen and seldom patronized. Therefore we closed for good…unless someone wants me to do a Streisand themed restaurant, museum, Barbra Shop in any U.S. tourist spot or European location for that matter.

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C: Tell me about your experience of the Barbra auctions?

L: Initially I attended a Barbra Streisand Christie’s auction in NYC. I purchased several gowns, one of Barbra’s Chinese antique lamps, some china and three large pieces of antique pottery.  I participated in three other NYC auctions, at one I was high bidder on Barbra’s first eight concerts in New York City.

In 2004, I volunteered my service to assist Julien Entertainment in identifying significant items from Barbra’s career as well as personal items when she started to let go of her career items. I even hosted a two week exhibit of extremely significant career gowns at Takishimaya on 5th Avenue in NYC. During that exhibit I decide that I wanted to become owner of Barbra’s most classic and historically significant and iconic “My Name is Barbra” gown. It was the last item offered for bid in the Her Name is Barbra 2004 auction and I was the high bidder. This gown and the eight contracts are the two most important/valuable pieces in my vast collection.

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C: What items were you most surprised about her selling at auction?

L: Actually, it was almost painful watching all of her beautiful career gowns being distribute to others and breaking up what would make a significant career exhibit. I made it a mission of mine to keep tabs on who purchased what by starting the Barbra Streisand Legacy Associates. I requested that new owners of her gowns or other significant items register as associates. Many of those registered items have been exhibited to provide funding for non-profits.

C: What was the thing that got away that you wished you had won?

L: Her Oscars see-through Scassi pantsuit. Scassi won it back for himself. He repurchased many of the items he designed for Barbra.

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C: I adore the busts that were in your museum.

L: Those items were actually on consignment for me to sell. They were and many still are owned by Ken Joachim, the curator of the 1996 Hello Gorgeous museum in the Castro of San Francisco. The unsold were returned to him when I closed my shop.

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C: You’ve lent items to other museums and exhibitions toured with some of your Babs collection. Where is your collection now and how can people see it?

L: All of my collection is now in storage. My long term goal of establishing a Streisand Museum/Performing Arts centre becomes less pursuable as I am soon to be 70 and that goal is rapidly becoming a short term crisis. I do not want to die not having achieved all or part of my goal, leaving the thousands of items for my family to liquidate.

C: Have you met her?

L: Yes I have. After I curated a 1200 piece exhibit at the Hollywood Museum her manager, Marty Erlichman, called me and wanted to tour, film and photograph it. As a thank you he and Barbra invited me to her Arizona concert as a guest. Marty requested that I go backstage after the concert where I was one of very few guests – her sister Roslyn Kind , David Foster and girlfriend, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jay Alexander, Renata, Jane Withers and Mrs. David Rose and of course Sammie.

Oh, I forgot the best part. When I met Barbra, she put her hand on her hip, looked me straight in the eyes and said in her Brooklyneese best “so wher’d ya’ get all my stuff?” I will always remember this as it is etched in my brain.

C:  We’re a little in love with Babs’ dog Sammie.

L: I have also met Jason and  his dog Eli when I again went backstage at the Hollywood Bowl

C: Lucky! What would you most like to see Babs do in the future?

Aside from Gypsy, I would love her to record a simply produced album of old favourites in the style of early Barbra, with a lot of drama and emotion without concern to be perfect and with minimal accompaniment. Purely classic Barbra.

When she and Bette Midler get a little older and before they retire from the screen, I would love to see them to star together in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (I am a little weird that way)

C: That would be the ultimate dream!

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