Sunday, May 2, 2010

Kewpiesta and Bonniebrook: A Branson Excursion

Bonjour, mes amis! Or, as they say down in th’ hills and hollers of th’Ozarks, Howdy, y’all!

Today I report on last weekend’s daytrip to Branson, which is about three hours’ drive south of Jefferson City.

The impetus was that Kewpiesta was going on last week (April 21–25). It’s a five-day convention for the hardcore types, but we decided that a few hours of witnessing the Kewpie aficionados and their stuff would be plenty for us. And anyway, we didn’t want to pay the registration cost.

If you have no clue who Rose O’Neill was, or what Kewpies are, you need to look at my previous post. Here’s the link!

Kewpiesta is the annual convention of the International Rose O’Neill Club (IROC). You just know these are an interesting bunch! I think the largest number of IROC-ers are doll collectors, specifically Kewpie collectors—because Kewpies, in all their shapes and sizes, in print, on labels, on dishware and candlesticks and even Christmas lightbulb shapes, are eminently collectible!

And it is truly an international club—Kewpies were popular worldwide, were manufactured in Germany, and even today are quite popular in Japan. One year we went to Kewpiesta, and there was a large contingent of Japanese collectors there. Serious collectors. I recall they really had fun at the auction!

Other members of IROC are people interested in Rose O’Neill as a unique character, as a serious artist, as a female artist, and as a local celebrity. Most members of IROC have a sincere appreciation and understanding for the styles of the past, too. Not that they dress in turn-of-the-century garb or anything . . . but in a way, they are lay historians of popular cultural history.
You really should have a look at the Web site of the IROC and Kewpiesta.

They also provide scholarships for needy talented art students—which carries on O’Neill’s tradition of helping younger artists to get started.

It’s a three-hour drive from Jeff City down to Branson, so once we’d arrived and had lunch, the Kewpiesta, which had been going on since Wednesday, was wrapping up. Throughout the conference, in addition to the various speakers, auctions, discussions, luncheons, and so forth, the aficionados put up displays of their collections, and/or items for sale, in the windows of their motel rooms.

So all one has to do is stroll along the motel walkways, peering into windows. Most of the collectors are more than happy for you to come in and chat, and look at their items more closely.

There were tons of Kewpies to see, plus Kuddle Kewps, Ho-Hos (O’Neill’s Buddha figure, not the snack treat), Scootles dolls, and so on. Here are a few of the many, many items we saw.

The price tag on this item blew me away. It was only about two and a half inches long. I can see how pieces like this—made of china, I guess, with all those vulnerable, thin extremities—would not have survived well into the twenty-first century, so they’re probably very rare.

Here is “Farmer Kewpie,” another little china or bisque figure. There were several individual Kewpie characters identifiable by their various hats and other attributes. Again, check out the price tag!

Well, this next thing certainly caught my eye, since I’m an alumna of the Hickman High School Marching Kewpies trumpet line! This is a vintage Conn Victor cornet, probably from the 1920s (it has that weird extra linkage on the tube exiting the valve casing that could give you the option to turn it into an “A” cornet instead of B-flat—but I digress). It’s in about as beautiful a shape as you could expect a ninety-year-old horn to be.

But the kicker is that above the standard, old-fashioned, ornate bell engraving, THIS horn has been uniquely engraved with a Kewpie! Behind him is a little oceanscape, complete with distant lighthouse. Pretty neat, huh? I kept thinking how groovy this would have been in high school!

But what I find most compelling about this is that whoever owned this cornet must have been the one to have it engraved—paid to have it engraved nicely—and in the 1920s, that musician would have almost certainly been a man. Not just any man, but a trumpet-dude, a jazz dude (this wouldn’t have been in an orchestra, most likely). A studly macho trumpet dude—had a little naked Kewpie grinning on his bell, the bell of his sweet trumpet.

Which tells you about the popularity of the Kewpies, in their heyday.

Oh, and the price on this? I can’t recall the exact figure, but it was over $2,000. The original case and a Conn mouthpiece were with it, all in decent shape. The collector said he’d priced it so that it really wouldn’t sell. He didn’t want to sell it. Even though he didn’t know how to play a cornet. (Sigh!)

Here’s a picture of one of the early Kewpie dolls. The theme for this year’s Kewpiesta was “Rose’s Dolls,” so there you go. One of about a zillion, with so few left.

Below is another interesting thing to peer at: An original Kewpie Doll in an original box with (apparently) original packing material and everything. Can you imagine the thrill of a little kid opening up this box? It must have been mighty.

I mean, really—when you think of the “competition,” other dolls at the turn of the century were gorgeous, delicate, lifelike, yes . . . but they so often had a vacant stare. But the Kewpies had oodles of charm. Just look at them. Doesn’t it make you want to crack a Kewpish little smile, too?


After we’d completed our rounds of the Kewpie Konkourse (seriously, that’s what they call it), we drove back north out of Branson. (Ooh! The traffic of folks driving into town for the night’s shows!)

Thence to Bonniebrook. As I explained in my previous post, it’s a rebuilt Bonniebrook, but I suppose it looks quite a bit like the original home, which was destroyed by fire in 1947. (Something tells me that ol’ Rose would be touched and deeply amused that the home had been rebuilt.)

Bonniebrook is about nine miles north of Branson on the right/east side of Highway 65, at the bottom of a valley between two relatively steep grades. There’s a building with a gift shop and museum, and then there’s the house itself, with its yard and walkways, plus the O’Neill family cemetery.

The house must have seemed a mansion, or a castle, when it was first built. I read somewhere that Bonniebrook had the first indoor bathroom with running water in the whole area.

In the foreground of that picture, notice the sculpture, “The Fauness”—one of two O’Neill sculptures on the grounds. Keep scrollin’.

You can tour Bonniebrook. Since it was Kewpiesta Saturday, the home was open for free (which was really nice, since we got caught in a downpour while we were there!). Here is a view looking down the several staircases in the center of the home. At the bottom is a piano. The O’Neills loved to entertain, and the house was built specifically for it.

I told you it was raining. Here’s a view from the second-floor front porch, looking down at the swelling creek they called Bonniebrook, and a little footbridge. That’s vinca, by the way, down there on the ground. It’s all over the place on that land—but thankfully the wild sweet William, trillium, and other native wildflowers were able to poke out of it.

Here is another view of the interior of the rebuilt Bonniebrook. I tried to replicate the angle of a famous picture of O’Neill taken in this very same room. Well, the same room in the previous Bonniebrook, as this is sort of the holodeck version with twenty-first-century aliens lounging around in it.

In the old photograph of “this” room, taken around 1940 I guess, the room is chock full of Kewpies and Victorian pretties, including about seven busts sitting on the mantle of an ornate fireplace (the Gothic one O’Neill had moved to the house from Connecticut?), and the chairs are eighteenth-century carved-wing-armrest affairs. Rose is sitting with her brother Clink (Clarence, but who called him that?), her sister Callista, and Vance Randolph, the Ozark folklorist we’ve talked about before. Oh, and everyone seems to be looking at the same thing—a cat sitting right on the table, licking a paw. O’Neill loved cats.

In the house and in the museum are lots of photographs of O’Neill, and here is one of my favorites, taken when she was hanging out with her artist friends in Paris. Indeed, O’Neill’s “Sweet Monster” series of artworks had exhibitions in New York and in Paris. It wasn’t all “cartoons” for her.

Here’s a prime example of O’Neill’s more serious side. This sculpture is called “Embrace of the Tree,” and she originally had it at Carabas, her home in Westport, Connecticut. When she retired to the Ozarks, she had the sculpture brought to Bonniebrook. Rose said in her memoirs: “I think the hillmen . . . had a little fun when they put the Embrace of the Tree on the lawn, though they spoke of it respectfully as ‘That there monu-ment.’”

You really ought to read her autobiography—it’s a real hoot.

Here’s another view of Embrace of the Tree. Pretty, um, powerful, huh?

Honestly, I would sooooo love to have this sculpture in my backyard. Wouldn’t you?

I understand, by the way, that the caretakers of Bonniebrook are getting ready to have Embrace of the Tree moved indoors, since weather has been taking a toll on the two-ton sculpture (they seriously need to do this, indeed). So if you want to experience Embrace outdoors, as O’Neill had intended, you’d better get down to Bonniebrook soon.

Now, here is a closeup of The Fauness, one of O’Neill’s oddly transmogrified human-beasts. I think what’s odd and compelling about it is that despite the fact that it’s a monster—it’s attractive, organic, and benevolent. And beautiful. You can tell she studied classical sculpture from a very young age, assimilating into her aesthetic sensibility such strangely beautiful beings.

As you continue to stroll beyond the house and into the woods, a path follows the brook and leads to the O’Neill family cemetery. Rose was laid to rest here in 1944, beside her mother and her brother Jamie. Her sisters Callista and Lee, and her brother John Hugh, were also buried there.

Inside the museum, more treasures await. Naturally, there are Kewpies, Kewpies, and more Kewpies. Here’s a funny little Kuddle Kewpie that was seated in the back corner of a display case. Kuddle Kewps were invented so that little kids would have a soft Kewpie they could hug and cuddle with.

The museum also bears witness to the many commercial branches of Kewpieness. The Kewpies are famously associated with early ads for Jell-O. But here’s one I’d never heard of—Kewpie mixed vegetables!

(I wonder if the Kewpie on the label encouraged any more children to eat their canned veggies?)

O’Neill wrote books, as well. When I read one of these, I’ll tell you all about it. Here’s the front cover of one.

Various items were found in the ashes after the 1947 fire that destroyed Bonniebrook. Here’s a Buddha that O’Neill had owned. I find it intriguing, given that in her later years she developed the “Ho-Ho,” her version of a laughing Buddha—which, despite being a commercial failure, nevertheless lifted her own mood in light of her vanished fortune, indeed poverty, and the ongoing World War II, which threatened to crush her spirits during the last years of her life.

At some point relatively recently, an exploration was made of the Bonniebrook grounds to hunt for possible artifacts left over after the 1947 fire. And the stuff they found is pretty interesting. Here is one example of what had been buried under the soil, a fragment of a Kewpie face.

I try to imagine how it must have felt to unearth this little sprite after so many years of its being buried in that fertile Ozark bottomland soil—more than just a symbol of indomitable cheer, it’s a powerful proof of the ability of one artist to elevate a person’s mood, a legitimately real influence from beyond the grave, a true immortality for the Kewpish spirit of Rose O’Neill.


Elizabeth said...

What a great post! I have always loved Kewpies, have a small collection, and spent hours at Bonniebrook a few years ago. I loved discovering the other aspects of Rose O'Neill's life there - it was so interesting! Thanks!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Why, thank YOU, Elizabeth, for taking the time to write such kind words, and for wading through what I know was an excessively long blog post! Your scrolling finger must be all sore!

More seriously, I do encourage you to read "The Story of Rose O'Neill: An Autobiography." It's very fun, and like all good memoirs, by the end, you feel like you "know" the writer. And Rose O'Neill is one of those worth "knowing."

Thanks again,

Branson Travel Office said...

This is probably the most in-depth overview of Bonniebrook on the web. You took some great pictures and shared some things that will surely be helpful for people visiting the grounds! Rose and her work is quite amazing, it's great we have the opportunity to look back on it right here in our back yard.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Gee, thanks, BTO, I'm flattered!

I'm not the most prolific of bloggers, but I try to post quality stuff--I don't quite believe in all that "nobody has an attention span anymore" stuff.

FYI--there's a lot more in Branson I want to explore--Opulent Opossum stuff. I'm sorry I missed the big anniversary years for Silver Dollar City and the Shepherd of the Hills. But I'll get 'round to it!


RockyMissouri said...

My friends and I used to visit the woods where Rose is buried ....she didn't want a fence..and I doubt that she would approve of the commercialism around her creations. Kahlil Gibran and many other world renowned people have seen the beauty of those woods by a full moon, just as WE did. The daffodils that her mother planted have escaped...and are a delightful surprise in the spring.....and a reminder of the people who once loved it, too...

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you, RockyMissouri, for sharing the image of what Bonniebrook must look like by the light of a full moon. I do encourage everyone to read O'Neill's memoirs (ed. Miriam Formanek-Brunell), in order to get a feel for her spirit, her voice, and the kinds of things she thought about. I personally believe that, in her later years when money was short, she would have loved to regain some of the commercial success she'd had earlier--I think that explains much of her enthusiasm about her "Ho-Hos," which she seemed to hope would be the new "Kewpies." (Though she was also proud of the Ho-Hos' Buddhist ancestry, as the Kewpies had been related to cupids.)

Anyway, she was a unique, complex woman, and she is certainly much more than the commercialization of her famous Kewpies would lead you to believe. I adore her sculptures and her many non-cartoon illustrations. Fortunately, a trip to Bonniebrook can help in that understanding.

Thanks again for commenting,