MTV VJ (and Marin rock legend Grace Slick’s daughter) China Kantner hosts a story on Mickey McGowan.
In 1969 Mickey McGowan moved from LA to Marin with hardly a possession. Calling himself the Apple Cobbler, he opened an eclectic shoe-making business in downtown Mill Valley and decorated his store with a few knick-knacks from the Baby Boomer generation — a cartoon lunchbox here, a handful of super balls there, some 1950s-style TV sets in the corner, etc.
But like a radioactive tumbleweed from outer space, sucking up every ounce of kitsch in America, McGowan’s collection took on a life of its own. He was soon engulfed by his own Unknown Museum, regarded by many as one of the world’s largest collections of pop culture ephemera spanning the 1950s to the 1980s.
From 1974 to 1989, The Unknown Museum was first located in downtown Mill Valley and later moved to a private home on E. Blithedale. You may remember seeing it; the front gate was constructed almost entirely of snow skis standing on end.
As a relatively new recruit within the cult of Nostalgia, I was excited to meet McGowan in person. I’d somehow missed his museum during its heyday and wondered if he might be able to provide some insight into the nagging question, “What’s behind this intense drive to see old stuff?”
Stepping into McGowan’s home is something of an experience in itself. While the Mill Valley museum may have closed its doors to the public almost 20 years ago, his collection is still intact (perhaps even larger now) and seemingly fills every inch and surface of his 4,000 square foot San Rafael Victorian. As we sit in his living room, a literal army of dolls, action figures, and Mr. Potato Heads watch us from every direction.
McGowan himself is a cross between a Philosophy professor and The Cat In The Hat. While cogitating on the therapeutic benefits of nostalgia or explaining what he calls the “Echoes of Time,” he suddenly opens a box of old matchbooks.
“You’ve got the Greenbrae Lanes Bowling Alley!” I say, seeing it,
“Yes I do,” he says, “Right next to Zim’s” and pulls out the Zim’s matchbook which is laying beside it. “It was next to Zim’s (in Greenbrae) before they tore it down.”
LEWIS: Why was Marin such fertile ground for your Unknown Museum?
MCGOWAN: Marin just had the Energy. I think the main reason that I loved being here — and when I leave I’ll miss it – is that there are Echoes here… So much has gone on here. The echoes of the Tides (bookstore in Sausalito). The echoes of Quicksilver playing in the Stolte Grove (near the 2am Club), Village Music, the Mountain Amphitheater, the Renaissance Faire in San Rafael, it goes on and on. They all have created these echoes that keep reverberating amongst the valleys and canyons.
LEWIS: You said the key to the future lies hidden in the past. You’ve also said that looking at this stuff can be sort of therapeutic. If everyone on the planet received this kind of therapy (spent some time looking at artifacts from their collective childhoods) on a daily basis, how would it change the world?
MCGOWAN: Well, I think it gives them – people — an insight into a heritage that they were letting, for better or for worse, slip away.
LEWIS: And recognizing that does what for them?
MCGOWAN: It’s a relaxant much like, perhaps, a mental Xanax. And that’s therapeutic. It’s cheaper and healthier. You don’t get the drugs in your system…
LEWIS: And the ‘echoes’ that you talked about in Marin, they sound almost like Native American spirits that are still kind of floating around….
MCGOWAN: Yes. Very well put, yeah, they are. They’re Miwokian.
LEWIS: What sort of nostalgic memories do you have of Mill Valley?
MCGOWAN: I remember when I first moved to Mill Valley, even in ’70, when I permanently moved there in ’73 from Sausalito, it was a ghost town at night. Sweetwater had just opened. I thought, how was I going to support myself (making shoes) there? Could people ever find me in Mill Valley? It was that remote — even that short time ago. There was nothing. At night, it was all shut down and still. Some successful musicians were still around, but they were keeping pretty much to themselves and they’d go to the City and play. There was no no place to hang out. Pat and Joe’s had closed. So it was scary, kind of.
LEWIS: Are you an artist?
MCGOWAN: I’m an artist, yes. An artist is one who creates things. I create a world of my interpretation of an American popular culture. That’s become my media after experimenting with all the others, and occasionally I still do paint, sculpt, and so forth. But I sculpt with a common object, create things. Sometimes I paint things. I make things. But I try not to let the artistic process get in the way of too much for the viewer of the true history of what has gone on into this, what has gone on in this country.
LEWIS: When did you make your last pair of shoes?
MCGOWAN: In ’79.
LEWIS: And that was because you no longer needed to?
MCGOWAN: I was doing other things, and the glues were getting to me. And the work was too much for the, you know, I wasn’t charging enough. But it was fun.
LEWIS: Were you a hippie?
MCGOWAN: Some thought so. I ascribed to hippie philosophy to some degree. I didn’t get into the personal drug use on the level that many associate with hippies, but I had the longer hair. I had the, many of the trademark hippie things.
LEWIS: Your patrons of your museum, any well-known people of the day?
MCGOWAN: Without getting into names, of course… There were colorful people in colorful clothing, and fashion people, and artists, and musicians, and…
LEWIS: You didn’t have a day when a Janis Joplin came in or something like that?
MCGOWAN: I remember one day I was sitting in the room to the side with some people and John Belushi came in. It was right during the “Animal House” craze, in the late ‘70s. And he just came in and sat down right next to us like he was part of the conversation. I didn’t watch “Saturday Night Live.” We just talked.
LEWIS: What did John Belushi want?
MCGOWAN: He just was brought over to visit. There was a limousine outside. People would come. They just had heard about the place. I mean Marin has this history, but what was there really to visit? For some reason, by default, the Unknown Museum was this place to go on a Sunday afternoon.
One morning Bill Graham came in. He lived up in the canyon and went jogging in his running clothes. One time he stopped by and was just standing there with a dumbfounded, “What’s this place???” I remember Robert Shields, a great mime, lived up in the canyon. He’d stop and walk in the museum and do a mime, not say anything, but just interact with people and play with the things, and then get in his car and drive up to his house, on his way home from performing in the City. It was also a place for expression. We had events there. Concerts and talent reviews, and things like that. We had a casino night, an interplanetary masquerade ball. It was an art center and a museum. But more than just a museum — a social scene.
LEWIS: When was the last day the Unknown Museum was open to the public?
MCGOWAN: The last official day of the second location was April 1989. So it was open for 15 years straight.
LEWIS: And that location was?
MCGOWAN: 243 East Blithedale, which is now condos. The house is gone.
LEWIS: Did you originally come to Marin with the collection?
MCGOWAN: No, I came here – possessionless. I was penniless – living day to day, are you kidding?
LEWIS: How did you get a spot in Mill Valley?
MCGOWAN: Well the Sausalito Art Center had studio rooms and I rented one with a friend, Rat Soup. That was his nickname. He made clay sculpture. Eighty bucks a month, we rented a little room. We weren’t supposed to but we’d occasionally sleep in the building. Or we’d sleep in the car. It was kind of a homeless (lifestyle) but it was different then. We’d go down and get the .10 cent coffee at the Tides Bookstore in Sausalito. A lot of us had our first shows there, myself with my drawings. Rat Soup with his sculpture. The Tides was the focus – I mean Sausalito in 1969, you can’t even imagine the streets at night, like 7:00 to 9:00 at night, just people, like a parade. And just voluminous hippies and successful writers, Richard Brautigan types. All these people just walking down the street and beautiful men and women with Afghan dogs. People have moved to the cities or have passed, most, many of them. And musicians, legends, and of course the Trident was there. I had worked for two months in the kitchen. Every night Miles would stroll in and Janis, or Crosby, the mainstays of the place.
There are places that have echoes. Greenwich Village, North Beach, Marin County has a certain group of echoes from the artists and musicians, I’d have to say primarily, that they have created a lot of the echoes. And also the New Age, Stewart Brand, Larry Brilliant, all these people, the New Age thinkers. It’s all echoing here. And that’s why people remain around here and revel in Marin County. You know? That’s why it’s great here and that’s why I continue to stay here and want to stay here…