King Tut’s Forgotten First American Tour


By Steven Rosen /2005 / Los Angeles CityBeat

There’s a common misconception about King Tut.

Yes, he really is dead.

And, yes, the current “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharoahs” exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a sequel to the famous 1976-1979 “Treasures of Tutankhamum” tour that lured some 8 million visitors to seven American museums. That one is considered the first of the blockbusters – the dawning of the modern era of museum exhibitions.

But contrary to popular opinion, that was not the first show devoted to the Boy King to tour American museums. There was an earlier one called “Tutankhamun Treasures: A Loan Exhibition from the Department of Antiquities of the United Arab Republic.”

It toured 16 American museums – including Los Angeles – from 1961 to 1963, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and American Association of Museums. It even had a catalogue whose cover looks remarkably similar to one of the current show’s featured objects. It is of a miniature gold coffinettes, in the shape of the king, that originally contained the mummified Tut’s embalmed internal organs.

“No one seems to talk about that one,” says John Norman, whose Arts and Exhibitions International helped design and produce the current show. He was not aware of the 1961-1963 exhibition until contacted for this story.

The show was not as large as the subsequent two. All the objects were small, the biggest being only 20 inches tall. The number of objects, too, was smaller – 34 were on display, whereas the 1976-1979 exhibition had 55, including the show-stopping golden death mask. The current show features 50 objects from King Tut’s tomb, plus another 70 ancient Egyptian artifacts.

But it was a major show for its time. Jackie Kennedy was photographed by the Washington Post at its first stop, the National Gallery of Art. Some 118,403 people attended the Los Angeles County Museum during its November, 1962, visit. (The museum in Exposition Park had three divisions – science, art and history – until LACMA moved into its Wilshire Boulevard site in 1965. The remaining divisions are now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.)

“That first show was of Tut miniatures – it was a mini-show,” says George Kuwayama, LACMA’s retired curator of Oriental art (which included Egyptian art). “But it was a spectacularly popular show. There were lines going around the block. Mummymania is innate in human beings.” He says he also believes that admission was 50 cents and that several of that show’s objects are in the current exhibition.

Overall, 1.112 million people saw the show in Washington, Philadelphia, New Haven, Houston, Omaha, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore and Dayton. (Statistics aren’t available for two other stops – Detroit and Toledo.)

Memories seem to have receded from the public consciousness – and institutional records – in Los Angeles, where it was difficult to find anyone who remembered the show. (A reader originally contacted CityBeat; LACMA’s Nancy Thomas – who co-curated “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs” but wasn’t familiar with the 1960s-era show – suggested Kuwayama as a source.)

But fortunately that’s not the case at the Dayton Art Institute. Its website features a message from the director boasting that “we hosted the first King Tut show in 1961.” (Actually, it was in Dayton in 1963.)

“Our archivist is worth her weight in gold,” says that director, Alexander Lee Nyerges, in a telephone interview.

From studying the museum records, he was able to report that each participating museum paid $4,575 for the show and the insurance premium for its objects was $50,000. (Norman has said the current show is insured for $650 million.) Dayton attracted 30,000 visitors – outstanding for the time.

“The purpose was to draw attention to the creation of the Aswan Dam (in Egypt),” Nyerges explains. “Money was being raised around the world to save the temples at Abu Simbel. The American government took the lead along with UNESCO.”

To prevent the rising waters of Aswan High Dam on the Nile River from submerging the four huge statues on the facade of Pharaoh Ramses II’s temple, the monument was cut into large blocks and relocated above the new water line. Besides being a massive engineering project, it was a landmark in Cold War-era international cooperation, especially in the Mideast.

And “Tutankhamum Treasures” was part of that.

Finding Humor in Retro Culture

As Mid-Century Modern becomes desired, preserved and collected, many cities — Cincinnati included — have started Modernism tradeshows where period design objects are sold and advice is given on home restorations.

 NOV 5, 2014 


The recent growth in popularity of all things Mid-Century Modern — from flowing, stone-and-glass showcase homes like Eero Saarinen’s Miller House in Columbus, Ind., to the “Googie”-style neon-bedecked coffee shops and drive-ins of the 1950s — has been good for pop culture humorist Charles Phoenix.

As Mid-Century Modern becomes desired, preserved and collected, many cities — Cincinnati included — have started Modernism tradeshows where period design objects are sold and advice is given on home restorations.

But those shows and related events need a little entertainment, too. And they often turn to Phoenix, a Southern California native and Los Angeles resident who has developed quite a career as a “retro daddy” humorist/archivist for all things Americana. Especially all things Mid-Century Modern.

He has never been to Cincinnati (though he wants to visit), but he is appearing Thursday night at the Dayton Art Institute with his Big Retro Slide Show, a “roast and toast” of found and sourced American kitsch Kodachrome photo slides. (Tickets are available for $30 and $26 for seniors at

Speaking by phone, Phoenix says this rise in interest in Modernism reflects a cultural shift as the generation of adults that prospered and started families in the 1950s is moving on. They wanted to show their wealth by constantly embracing newness — new subdivisions, new homes, new cars, new appliances.

To them, once something was even 10 years old, it had no value. It was passé, disposable, forgotten. Now, in a more preservation-oriented time, Mid-Century Modern is old enough to be historic.

“The people who were taught to hate something because it was 10 years old or even five years old are not around anymore,” Phoenix says. “It’s a whole new group of people now who are appreciating this stuff that has survived. They didn’t know we were once programmed to hate that stuff, like that Modernist building that’s out of style now because it was ‘so 10 years ago’.”

And this has been great for him because he has always loved “retro” stuff — not just Mid-Century buildings but also classic food brands, 1950s cars, Polynesian-style tiki culture, old burger stands … you name it. And he now has a sizeable audience that shares his love and gets his jokes.

“My style guide is what I was raised in,” Phoenix says. “I’m a child of Southern California, of Disneyland. My dad had a used car lot when I was a child. I started from that springboard and then looking around. When I was a teenager, I discovered vintage clothes and thrift stores. From there, I started looking at architecture and unique stuff. When I started looking around, a lot of things happened to be Mid-Century stuff. But that’s not just my world. I’m about all kinds of classic and kitschy American life and style.”

Phoenix’s career as a “retro humorist” really started in 1992, when he found a box of slides titled, “A Trip Across the United States 1957.” It was someone’s discarded souvenirs of a family vacation. In 1998, he held his first public slide-show event. As each slide is presented, he comments on its small details — the clothing, the hairstyles, the furniture and decorations, the food choices, the awkward poses, the relationship between family members — that cumulatively evoke how life was lived in the recent past. His is an exercise in how to “read” a photograph.

“By the middle of 1999, I was charging for my slide shows and within a couple of years that was my sole job,” he says. “Before that, I had started my professional life as a fashion designer in my 20s in the 1980s, and during my 30s in the 1990s I bought and sold classic cars.”

As interest in “found footage” has increased, Phoenix no longer can count on finding vintage slide collections at flea markets and home sales. His shows today mix old slides with new photos he takes (digitally) of retro objects and places he sees during his travels.

One example — which may or may not be in the Dayton slide show — would be 79-year-old K’s Hamburger Shop in Troy, Ohio, which he discovered on a Dayton visit two years ago. He figures he’ll go through more than 150 images in his Dayton presentation.

“I don’t consider myself a historian but an entertainer; Americana is my shtick,” Phoenix says. “It’s my curatorial take on this stuff that we’re selling, rather than the stuff itself. I’m just trying to educate people with humor to open their eyes and see that we live in a wonderland and there’s interesting stuff everywhere.”

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