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The Museum That May Put Hoboken on the Map


It must spring from the natural human impulse to remember and, aware of the evanescence of memory, to concretize, to have something to look at or touch that evokes that which is gone.

Why else would the citizens of Hoboken in New Jersey wish to establish a Frank Sinatra Museum? Are they afraid we might all forget him when the great voice is finally stilled? Do they think we need a shrine to mitigate the pain of Ol' Blue Eyes' departure from the land of the living?

Maybe Hoboken just needs the money they think Sinatra pilgrims might bring with them.

Still, I'd probably go. I've always been a habitue of small museums. You know the kind: those where the artifacts might be less than arresting, but are offered with such quiet pride and sincerity they make you more than happy to fork over a couple of dollars to get in. There are no Winged Victories inside. Of course, we know that. But maybe there is a cannon that was fired in the direction of some British soldiers in a battle that, according to our history books if not theirs, we won.

The best among these museums often specialize. There is a museum in London devoted solely to mustard. This is understandable because Britain has good mustard, by my reckoning. In Moscow there is a museum of bread. But it is not bread as a food staple. Rather it is bread as a symbolic objective of all the revolutionary struggles that have disturbed the peace of the world for the two centuries since the French Revolution defined for us what is worth fighting about. Russian bread, as bread, is not the best in the world by anybody's reckoning.

In Mexico, in the town of Guanajuato, there is a little museum that has mummies, only mummies. The mummies came about more or less by accident; they were created by the preservative combinations of chemicals in the soil around the town. They are the remains of indigent people, miners mostly, whose families could not afford to have them properly interred. A long time ago some entrepreneur decided they might constitute a tourist attraction. They were put in a museum and people came. Today Guanajuato is famous all over Mexico for its mummies. But they are not the best mummies in the world. Egypt has those, as everybody knows.

The people of Hoboken might take heart in the knowledge that museums for entertainers are not at all uncommon, though truth be told they have not been uncommonly successful.

Some years back the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil set up the Carmen Miranda Museum. I'm not certain it still exists, and would be surprised if it did. It was, well, pathetic -- little more than a collection of photographs and a few pairs of worn dancing shoes.

Carmen Miranda appeared in a lot of movies during the 1940s. She was the woman who, in the words of one who did not admire her art, "danced around with fruit on her head and went tico tico tic, tico tico toc . . . " She always played second banana to a more illustrious American star, and it has been suggested that her fame was contrived by the War Department as a way of cementing U.S.-Brazilian relations and encouraging solidarity in the fight against the Nazis. If so, the War Office did Brazilians no favor. It is not certain Carmen Miranda was as ridiculous as her image. It's doubtful anyone could have been, and ever since Brazilians have been trying to live it down.

Then there was Guy Lombardo. Everybody knows who he was, even people too young to have seen him. He was a band leader from Canada who drove speed boats as a hobby. He called his band the Royal Canadians and was famous for one song, "Auld Lang Syne." Because of it he became known as "Mr. New Year's Eve." Even today it is still heard all over on December 31.

So, about 10 years ago a rich fan assembled some Lombardo memorabilia and opened a museum in his home town of London, Ontario. The museum was not too popular, and almost failed until the city took it over. Today it operates on a shoestring and its main clientele are American senior citizens on bus trips from across the border. "They're the ones who remember him," said Ron Shudbolt, the unpaid managing director of the museum.

None of which is meant to discourage the Hobokenites from their aim of creating a Frank Sinatra Museum. It's sure to help. It can't hurt. It might even bring people in buses, older people who might remember him.

Richard O'Mara is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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