April 13th, 2009

Pabst Mansion, "Wind It Up"

On thing Georgie and I got in before I set off to Oklahoma City was a
visit to the Captain Frederick Pabst mansion here in Milwaukee. It was
in part a refresher visit for us, since we hadn't been to the museum in
years, but we particularly went to see a current exhibit, "Wind It Up:
19th and Early 20th Century Mechanical Objects", which is running
through June 7th.

For those not familiar with it, the Pabst Mansion is a fine example of
Flemish Revival style architecture (with many elements in common with
Milwaukee's newly restored City Hall). Built by Pabst as a "retirement
home" in 1890-92, the beautiful house is one of the few remaining
mansions along "Grand Avenue" (as Wisconsin Avenue was then) which was
the city's posh neighborhood.

The house was fortunately well preserved: after the death of Captain and
Mrs. Pabst, the family, who had homes of their own, sold the house to
the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which used it as the Archbishop's
residence until 1978. This resulted in the structure being preserved and
much of the original furniture being kept in storage. In 1978, a
preservation group acquired the house and shortly after opened it as a
museum. Preservation and restoration efforts continue. The house is
simply gorgeous, and well worth seeing at any time. There is a "photo
tour" on their website:


We made time to go on a Thursday morning, since Thursdays, Fridays, and
Saturdays during the 11:00AM and 2:00PM tours, they demonstrate some of
the wind-up mechanisms. "Wind It Up" is a small show, occupying part of
one of the upper rooms, but fascinating nevertheless. The display cases
were full of unusual toys and devices, including musical boxes, wind-up
acrobats and dancing dolls, watches, clocks, and other "toys", many of
which were intended as family entertainment from days before television,
radio, or even phonographs.

The demonstration showed off working examples of the music boxes,
musical dishes, and singing birds. There were also some fascinating
automata. One of them, the Smoking Turk, was fairly elaborately
animated. Another was an example of a "whistler," a type of musical
gadget I've never heard of before. The device, in this case a rare
"double whistler" is a carved figure of two "Irishmen" that whistle
tunes. According to the demonstrator, the mechanism is an actual slide
whistle pumped by a diaphragm driven by the wind-up mechanism.

As products of their time, the artifacts reflect the attitudes of the
age, which includes some regrettably "non-PC" elements. One of the
singing birds incorporates an actual stuffed canary. As "novelties" may
of the automaton's figures are "exotics" like blackamoors, "Turks" or
the aforementioned Irishmen. Nevertheless, the sheer ingenuity of the
mechanisms makes them an interesting study.

Monsters Vs. Aliens

We got out Saturday afternoon the 11th to see "Monsters Vs. Aliens," the latest animated movie from Pixar. Georgie and I both agreed that the movie would be best when seen in company with a Baby-Boomer era science-fiction geek who grew up on the 1950's sci-fi shockers this is a loving homage to. (Since that describes both of us, we were all set-.)

The main character is "Susan", a (painfully) normal young California woman (voiced with trademark cluelessness by Reese Witherspoon). After an opening sequence too thick in old movie references to count, she is struck by an eerily glowing meteorite just before her wedding, which comes to a halt when she begins to transform into a "fifty foot woman".

Dazed and confused by her metamorphosis, she is subdued and captured by government troops, and wakes up in a Guantanamo-like holding facility. While topical, this sequence is a bit jarring and brutal as initially she is given no explanation as to where she is or why she is being held. Then, her captor, General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) explains to her that since she is now a monster, she no longer has rights and can only look forward to a lifetime of incommunicado imprisonment.

However, she isn't quite alone in the facility. It also holds genuine 1950's era creatures: the bug-human science error Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), The Missing Link (Will Arnett), B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), and Insectasaurus. Think; "The Fly" (Dr. C even has a Vincent Price mustache), "The Creature from the Black Lagoon", "The Blob," and "Mothra," and you'll have the cast. Things change when a gigantic alien robot commanded by Gallaxhar (voice, Rainn Wilson) lands. Gallaxhar is a macrocephalic tentacled evil alien overlord who wouldn't have been out of place in the "Mars Attacks" bubblegum cards, as well as sharing a resemblance to "The Mekton" from the British "Dan Dare" comics of the period.

General Monger sees this as his big chance to become something other than a jailer, and, after conventional attacks on the robot fail, convinces the egotistically idiotic president (Stephen Colbert) to let him send in the monsters as shock troops.

This is initially a pretty traumatic experience for Susan, since a) she has no combat training or skills whatsoever, and b) as large as she is, the robot is twenty times larger and heavily armored to boot. Rescuing the endangered populace is a powerful motivation, though, and in the process of defeating the robot, Susan discovers that the meteoroid energy has made her super-strong, even for her size.

This victory wins the monsters their uneasy freedom, which results in a lot of problematic interaction with Susan's family and her fiancé, until Gallaxhar arrives in person with his even more huge mothership--.

While pure fun and a great homage to Cold War era SF films, the movie has lots of good, if not terribly original "girl power" message as well. Animation and design are up to Pixar standards, especially the scenes aboard the alien spacecraft. Witherspoon, Rogen, and others in the monster cast are doing well-established character tropes competently, while Sutherland and Colbert chew the war-room walls ala "Dr. Strangelove".

Good fun, best if you get the jokes. OK for kids old enough to not get freaked out by the monster-movie violence.

Villa Terrace: "Enchanted Doll"

The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum is another one of Milwaukee's
stately homes, this one having been built by Lloyd Smith of the "A.O.
Smith" manufacturing family. An Italianate villa, it perches on the
bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, with classical gardens tiered down the
slope to the lake level.

Again, well worth seeing on its own, the home preserves a quantity of
the family's art and furniture collections, as well as special exhibits.

We visited Easter Sunday to see the newly opened "Marina Bychkova:
Enchanted Doll" exhibition. The show notes say: "Influenced by
traditional Russian and European folktales, Russian artist Marina
Bychova's handcrafted dolls are suffused with an uncanny eroticism that
comments on fable, fantasy and the cultural roll of dolls."
Indeed. However, the fact that the dolls happen to be anatomically
correct (or as much so as jointed dolls can be), that is the least of
the things that set them apart from your Barbie doll. The dolls tend to
roughly fall into the Barbie or Dollfie ball-jointed-doll size range,
but they are all individuals, hand-made by the artist from porcelain.
Bychova is an amazing sculptor, since the doll faces are all different
and have personality. In addition to the vibrant faces, she has added
very realistic hair, and has experimented with skin effects including
scars, tattoos, and henna designs.
Although some of the dolls are nudes, massive amounts of work have gone
into the costumes for others. Not only is the clothing exquisitely sewn,
with fabric patterns custom dyed by the artist, most incorporate beading
or other decoration: some have thousands of beads, hundreds of pearls,
or dozens of real gemstones. To her other skills Ms. Bychova adds
jewelry making, so the costumes where appropriate incorporate crowns,
headdresses, bangles, and other parts cast of silver, copper, or bronze.
Although many of the dolls are based on fairy-tale characters, such as
Cinderella, Scherezade, and the Little Mermaid, this is definitely a
show for adults. Nowhere is this better shown than in the diptych based
on Snow White, called "Necrophilia." (The artist notes, "What would
possess a man to kiss a dead woman he found in a glass casket in the
forest?") The avid looking prince, his lips subtly smeared with blood,
crouches over the woman's body, her livid skin marked with bruises on
her chest and throat--.
Ms. Bychova declares in her notes to the exhibit that her intention is
to bring dolls into the world of fine art: we would say she has
I would strongly recommend this exhibit to anyone in the area interested
in dolls, sculpture, jewelry, sewing, or costumes, taking into account
the "adult content."
Villa Terrace website:
Marina Bychova's website (many pictures):