The Laughing Lady leans back and guffaws, her huge, smiling body rocking. Meanwhile, the boy above her sticks his tongue out, then slowly draws it back in. The nutcracker wiggles back and forth eagerly, while blackbirds desperately try to get out of the pie.
But it’s just getting started.
The kittens search for their lost mittens, while Giannini from the Bank of Italy in San Francisco looks on impassively. Fonz, the Man From U. N. C. L. E, and Atom Ant all make an appearance, as does Fozzie Bear.
The pregnant Siamese twins don’t seem interested, so they hang out with the alligator in the corner and look on judgmentally.
Just then, Sal stops laughing, and everybody calms down. The blackbirds settle into their pies, the nutcracker relaxes, and the boy’s tongue finally stays inside his mouth.
It’s just another afternoon at the Lunchbox Museum in Nice, where Deb Clarke showcases her massive collection of retro Americana.
Step inside, and you walk back in time. For years, Deb and her husband Duane ran Beyond Waste in Cotati. There Duane repurposed many of the wood products used to decorate the museum. Deb’s a retired teacher who started collecting lunchboxes during the early 1980s at antique fairs, flea markets, garage sales or thrift shops. She ended up buying so many on eBay that she became part of their Crazy Collector focus group. Then she and Duane added their personal collections to the many things they created and made the Lunchbox Museum.
It’s a flood of yellows, reds, blues, and greens, and decorated in a distinct carnival theme. Every inch of the walls has something on it: a “Hit The Bullseye, Win A Prize!” sign, shelves of miniatures and Star Trek dolls, and lunchboxes, lunchboxes, lunchboxes.
Then she turns left and looks up at the wall above her.
“There’s a ‘Korg’ lunchbox” she smiles, her blue earrings dangling as she looks upward. “That was a one-hit-wonder. And there’s the “Chan Clan,” which I think was based on Charlie Chan. And there’s “It’s About Time.” She points at a lunchbox of two astronauts stepping out of a space capsule while Neanderthals in furs swing their clubs at them. “Now that was a fun show.”
Each lunchbox encapsulates more than just a thermos. It’s a piece of time. And if you’re over forty, you’ll be sure to bump into something from your childhood. Big fan of Knight Rider? You’ll see a lunchbox there. Prefer Mork and Mindy? Don’t worry; they’ve got a lunchbox, too.
Deb continues, working her way down the aisle. There, plopped in a corner, stands a giant carnival knockdown doll, looming over the collectibles.
“Duane makes those, she said. “He ordered one online, then took it apart to see how it was made. Then he went crazy making new ones.” He’s made a lot of the things here. Did you see the pregnant Siamese twins? He has a strange sense of humor.”
Soon the tour winds down. There, by the front door and next to the Colonel, sits a rack of Star Wars: Episode 1 lunchboxes. Some look like plastic gas totes.
“Oh, those?” Deb explains. “Those are from England.”
It’s easy to get sucked in, pulling out one lunch box after another, until hours have passed. It’s like a step back into the collective childhoods of an entire generation.
If you’re looking to disappear for a while in the magic of decades ago, get in touch with Deb and have a look.
The Laughing Lady waits for you.
The Lunchbox Museum is located at 3674 State Hwy 20, Nice, CA. They are open Wednesdays from 10-1. If you want to get in another time, call Deb at (707)-695-7374, or email email@example.com. You can also visit the Lunchbox Museum site at retrodeb.com.
This article first appeared in The Bloom on 8.23.19