Ruby Montana
by James Crotty
September 15, 1998

The Queen of Kitsch

Seattle, WA

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 precious objects. We interviewed Ruby because she perfectly represents a type of good-natured tongue-in-cheek 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 Universal Church of Fun in Portland and the San Francisco Cacophony Society, and other points around the continent, but nowhere near as ambitiously or commercially 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 the world.

Ruby Montana is the Queen of Kitsch, the Empress of Camp. And the literal Mother of the Seattle Stance on Life, Death, and iron-head girls.

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 started.

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 children. 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 Seattle?

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 same thing.

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, [1979].

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 months...

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. "Kay-len") 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 experience.

Monk: You kind of represent not just the retro kitsch which ties everyone into childhood but an aesthetic. How do you describe this aesthetic?

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, right?

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 kitsch.

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 extremely rare.

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 this period?

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 Museum

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. Down below, 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 participation. 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 bizarre costumes. 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 that?

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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