by James Crotty
September 15, 1998
The Queen of Kitsch
uby Montana is not the first person to sell
campy merchandise in Seattle, and certainly
not the first in America. Though the incredibly
sweet, beautiful and meticulous Montana
is certainly the best. But we didn't just choose to
interview Ruby because she collects and sells a
staggering array of daffy, dorky, hilariously
We interviewed Ruby because she perfectly
represents a type of good-natured
sensibility that might very well be characterized
as Seattle Style. One sees it in her competitors
at Archie McPhee and Glamorama, in the antics
of the Tacky Tourist
Club and their annual Prom You Never Went
To. You see it in Kevin Kent's Sister Windy,
in the crazy art structures of Fremont, in the art
car parades, in the average hipster's love of all
things retro and absurd. You'll also find it at the
of Fun in Portland and the San Francisco
Cacophony Society, and other points around
the continent, but nowhere near as ambitiously
realized as in Seattle. No one, for example, but
Ruby Montana, would throw an annual
Spam Carving Contest, judged by Tom Robbins,
and attended by contestants from around
Ruby Montana is the Queen of Kitsch, the
Empress of Camp. And the literal Mother
of the Seattle Stance on Life, Death, and
We sit with Ruby in her Greenwood home.
Much like her store, it bears the mark of
Ruby's inimitable wacky genius. Her
rambunctious baby cocker spaniel, Charles, runs
in and out hungry for attention (she also has a
Chihuahua named Louis L'Amour, and
another cocker spaniel named Dale
"Bubby" Evans). Ruby sits in her
Flamingo Room on her Naugahyde
nautical couch, wearing her lucky red bandanna,
telling us about her full-blooded
Cherokee grandmother, about playing French
Horn so well she received a music scholarship to
the University of Michigan, about riding freight
trains, about being the
only white teacher in an all-black school, about
how after 19 years in Seattle, she
was about to close up shop and move to
Livingston, Montana of all places, when an
angel Realtor, and long-time fan, offered her a
bigger store, in a far better location, right
near Pike Place Market (2nd and Stewart) for
the same price! Well, yee-haw!!
Ruby Montana was ready to embark on yet
another new dramatic chapter. So we felt it
fitting we should find out how it all got
MONK: Now, how did this all begin? This
interest in what you call kitsch?
RUBY: Well, you know, my grandmother
mythologized inanimate objects for us as
They lived on Husband Street, in Stillwater,
Oklahoma. They would usually go on vacation
to the next state over, like to a town in
Arkansas. And she would bring back a little
miniature pitcher. And with that pitcher, she
would bring back a great
story, and my grandfather made this incredible
little shelf, and she would put all
those pitchers on that shelf, and we would just
beg her to tell us the stories of
many pitchers. I thought to myself, if ever I have
a house, I want everything to have a story.
My mother used to say that if they took me to
the beach, I was dragging in really
weird-ass pieces of driftwood. My environment
has always been something I like to
interact with. And so, [collecting kitsch] is all like
playing big time.
Monk: When did you move here to
RUBY: 1974. When I first came out here, I
moved to Bainbridge Island, [with my husband]
Peter. I started sleeping with women on my way
to Seattle. And I told Peter everything.
I mean, we were very close. And, in fact, we got
drunk one night, and he said to me, you know
what, if I were a woman right now, I'd be a
lesbian. And so he
was always extremely, he was wonderful. I
mean, the thing that I think, that is really
love, when somebody really, [CHOKES UP WITH
TEARS] it makes me a little sad to think
that. But when, when somebody loves you
enough to do that. And it's pretty amazing.
I mean, to, to tell you that they would do the
MONK: That's sweet. That's true.
RUBY: I eventually fell in love with a woman [I
met at the Michigan Women's Music
Festival]. It's a very political concept we're talking
here. I think for me, the
choice, more than sexual, was political, and
sexual followed that. So, we fell in
love. When I got back from the festival, I told
[my husband] that I had fallen in love with
this woman, and he was trying to talk me out of
leaving him, because he said, you
know, really, you can be in a relationship with me
and in a relationship with somebody
else, and I said, you know, it's no longer right. I
don't think it's right for me to
do this to you. And it's not right for me either. I
mean, I want to be with this
person. It was very hard and before a week
was over, she came up here and moved in.
So, about that time I had opened my store, all in
the same month, .
MONK: All through this time, you had been
collecting stuff. Is that the idea?
RUBY: Majorly. I had been a collector since I was
little. I was a rock hound, a stamp
hound, and then I started collecting stuffed
animals. So, I [opened the store] in
Greenwood because, I thought, "I can't go
downtown, I've got to go over to Greenwood
to get my feet wet. I can't just jump into the big
pond." So I was there for only six
MONK: And then you jumped into the big pond.
You moved downtown.
RUBY: Well yeah. And I was there for maybe
three years before Calyn (pron.
got involved. Calyn is truly the love of my life.
We've been together now 15 years.
Calyn is one of those people that sometimes her
energy scared me because she just
seemed like maybe she never quit. I mean she
was like a whirling dervish. I felt like
I'd finally met a match, you know, I mean
somebody that I wouldn't grow bored of.
I kept thinking to myself, "Oh how nice it would
be if it could all be packaged into
one and if she could be beautiful and exciting
and strong and like what I want to do and,
you know, give me a sense of family and
community by loving her own as I did mine."
Aah! And it all happened. I went back to
teaching at Roosevelt High School just
a few blocks up the street and she ran the
store until I got off.
MONK: So, it was called from the beginning Ruby
Montana's Pinto Pony? Why Pinto Pony?
RUBY: Well, you know, it's from that picture of
me when I was a kid and my grandmother
let me sit on that pony and take in the money. It
made me want to be a cowgirl. I
think that's the main reason that I picked [the
name]. I thought it might connect
with a lot of other people that had that same
Monk: You kind of represent not just the retro
kitsch which ties everyone into childhood
but an aesthetic. How do you describe this
RUBY: I think the kind of person we deal with
understands that an Eames chair isn't
just a piece of shit or that a Palomino rocking
chair has some value, you know, beyond
the fact that their grandparents owned it, even
though maybe that's what made them
attach to it. I think part of what we sell is the
sentiment that people feel.
MONK: Well, a lot of them are pop culture
artifacts that you carry and so words like
"campy" or "kitschy" might be used. How did you
define what is camp and what is kitsch?
RUBY: Kitsch is attaching a sense of humor to
an otherwise rather somber, serious,
subject. A pope snow doll. The pope can be
taken too seriously and I like it when
somebody does a snow doll or a shower nozzle, I
mean a sprinkler of the pope or,
John F. Kennedy as a salt and pepper shaker
sitting in his favorite rocking chair. Certainly
in the 50s absolutely every cultural group [was
represented this way]. For instance,
black face memorabilia. But black people come in
the store and appreciate it.
MONK: Is there a politically correct contingent
that comes and wags their finger?
RUBY: Oh they have. But they're the same
contingent that tell me that I shouldn't
have a Spam carving contest because it's a
meat product and that pigs are dying because
of it, and I'm a vegetarian!
MONK: Every year you have the Spam carving
contest, which seems to get tremendous
publicity. How did it start?
RUBY: I really can't take credit for it because it
came to me in a dream. I remember
waking up and asking Calyn about it the next
morning. And Calyn says, "You have literally
lost your mind." But I did [it anyway]. You get two
cans, 15 minutes and the pressure is on. We run
heats. We have 15 to 20 people in a heat. The
best ones are all
selected and then people vote on them. We
have judges. Tom Robbins is always the
judge. And then we have a Spam museum that
is also set up which has much of our history
in it. We've had the Shroud of Spam which is a
pink faint outline on a cloth, and we
have lots of major pieces.
MONK: So what time of year is it?
RUBY: It's Fat Tuesday Saturday, which is in
February. Saturday before Lent.
MONK: Let's talk a little bit about the aesthetic of
your store. There really is a
kind of art to this segment of pop culture, the
collection of tsotchkies and camp artifacts. In
time some of this will be worth a lot of money,
RUBY: Certainly. When most of this stuff was
[first sold] it was right after people
came back from a very sad war [WWII] and I
think that this [represents] bits of humor
that would be found in most homes. They might
have a cookie jar that has got a crier
in it, you know, that's gonna be a tattletale and
tell on you for picking up a cookie.
Or they might have a clown-faced cookie jar, or
you might go over to your Uncle
Elton's and he might have a salt and pepper that
is a woman's body. I guess the
reason that I find it to be so gratifying to collect
is that when you find a clock like that
pot metal mermaid clock that has the dream
spinner going around, it's really amazing.
Not only did they make a mythological character
that told the time, but then they
gave you an inner dream. That goes beyond
MONK: What would be the three or four of your
most prized possessions?
RUBY: One thing is, of course, my grandmother's
miniature pitchers collection. That's
probably my prized possession. A lot of those
miniature pitchers that she had are
quite kitschy. The old Aunt Jemima's face on the
pitcher, The Wilma Flintstone on
the telephone cookie jar.
MONK: What do you have that would be worth
the most money to collectors?
RUBY: I like what are called anthropomorphics.
That is anything that is made to be
human, to take an inanimate object and make it
like a person. I've been collecting
inanimate objects forever. I have been looking
for the telephone head girls for
twenty years and just found 'em. And that's the
typewriter head girl. These are the ink blotter
guys. I just got the dust pan girls, those are
MONK: A lot of your stuff is from the 50's?
RUBY: Oh, yeah. This is like the intellectual
genius of this particular time. I
mean these guys, Holtz & Howard, created
the ceramic design line. When you do a
pineapple that is supposed to look like a black
person and you anthropomorphise it,
that is brilliant. And here are the iron head girls.
So if you really get into the ceramics
of the 50's and the salt and peppers you are
either gonna get bored with it or you're
going to only go for the real jewel. I mean, it's
kind of like, I don't know, it's
kind of after a while like love, collecting. Initially,
when you're first into it, you
know, everybody looks good. Everything looks
good, and you're receiving, you're
taking the grey matter, you're taking the red
matter, and you're taking the purple
matter, and then later, as you really begin to
understand the nuances of all of those colors,
and the whole gigabyte, then you begin to realize
that some things are truly rare.
And so nothing really excites you anymore, until
you see that. And so that's one
of the few things, you know, after like doing this
for like 20 years, it takes a lot
to get you going [LAUGHS].
MONK: What do you think an expert would say
are the pieces that over time will be
considered emblematic, or the highest quality of
RUBY: Well, certainly anthropomorphics. But if I
had unlimited money I suppose [pieces
like] the Big Boy that I have in the [store]
window right now. That's an original
Big Boy. They're almost like pulling teeth to get
anything that is an advertising
icon of that nature and that size. I bought the
Dog House neon, but I sold it to Paul
Allen because we needed money at the time
and he agreed to put it in the Music Experience
MONK: So it's going to include Northwest
musicians as well as Jimi Hendrix?
RUBY: Northwest bands. It's a good idea
because it's a broader concept, they'll have
Soundgarden and Kurt Cobain. Lots of those
guys used to hang out at the Dog House
[Restaurant]. I think that's the greatest icon that
has ever been in Seattle. I
like it better than the Space Needle, better than
the PI Globe, better than the Pink Elephant,
because of what it represented. The people
that gathered there, the artists, the
brilliance of that room and those people, that
whistle soloist. He's kind of anthropomorphic to
me. You couldn't believe that somebody could do
a whistle solo of the entire
[musical] South Pacific, but this guy could.
MONK: In terms of people, who are those great
icons of Seattle Culture?
RUBY: Lou Bianchi. Lou Bianchi played piano bar
at the Trade Winds, where El Gaucho is now.
you would walk in and his wife Reeny was just
playing the brushes 'cause she was
just always rimming the heads. Every time I
would come in he'd yell, "Ruby's here
from 101 Cherry Street, give Ruby a big hello!"
[He would say], "Ruby, come here and kiss
the Chief!" You know, there's this Indian at the
bar that he wants me to meet.
And he said, "Ruby, why don't you start and let's
make everyone line up behind Ruby
and everyone's gonna kiss the Chief." And he's
got this great sense of community and
The bar was fabulous. It was all seashells, like an
old Polynesian bar and they
had silver dollars that people had carved their
name in all around the bar. There was fairly
good food but the waitresses were often
tramps, and they all had like
heavy thick Lili Marlene accents. There would be
these people that could dance really
well from Ballard who would play castanets as
they were dancing and came with these really
So after awhile you would go because you
couldn't believe it. It was like David Lynch
before David Lynch. Then Reeny had a heart
attack and died on one of their vacations to
Vegas. Now Lou's playing at the Elk's Club and
he's picked it up again.
But I just could never bring myself to go to the
Elk's Club because I want to remember
Lou always with Reeny in the background
brushing those heads.
MONK: There is this incredible sense of the
absurd and incredible humor that seems
to come out of Seattle. How would you define
RUBY: First and foremost it's a Scorpio city and I
think that is a very difficult
thing for a lot of people. Scorpio, once it's
wooed you and won you and you've gotten
through the whole gigabyte you're so glad you
hung in there. But most people could
never weather it. There's a lot of people that like
the four seasons, that like things
to be more extreme and then you begin to
realize that the extreme [in Seattle] happens
to be in the shades of grey and in the lack of
the seasons. I think Seattle has crashed and
burned a lot of people. But this is a magnanimous
town. Where else in the world
are you surrounded by mountains, live on an
island in a city that is low in crime.
MONK: What has changed in six years since the
creative explosion of the early 90s?
RUBY: Well, I do think that it was a sad day
when Frederic and Nelson closed it's
doors and that the core of downtown became
disenfranchised from this burgeoning Bellevue.
So I guess we're a little afraid that things are all
gonna become the Gap, the Banana Republic,
Niketown, Starbucks, Cinnabuns. It's just that
Seattle is becoming more
and more corporate and it feels like we're this
little endangered forest that is
getting cut down and we are one among many
merchants that perhaps deserve some help
in trying to keep a little soul in the city.
But basically there are people [here] that are
willing to work hard, that have a willingness
to live through another kind of a lid.
MONK: What do you mean by lid?
RUBY: Well the lid here means the lid that
comes over Seattle every winter that feels
like a grey lid. It won't come off and you won't
see the sun for a really long period.
That's the lid, and when you grew up in
Oklahoma, we have sun all the time. It
can be hard. But then I realized, you know, if you
create your own inner world and
your own life, you can be happy anywhere.
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