Sean Dockray - archive / Kingdom of the Dolls

Kingdom of the Dolls

essay about a museum in Desert Hot Springs

Desert Hot Springs is a tiny universe of churches, meth labs, and boutique spas. At its hot and sandy center, in the closet of a one-room public library, you’ll find a cardboard box stuffed with newspaper clippings that amount to the Local History Archive. Many of these snips are devoted to Cabot Yerxa, a small man who spawned quite a few tall tales. In the Desert Hot Springs creation myth, Cabot was so tired of walking fourteen miles for a drink that he dug a hole by hand - forty feet deep under the desert sun - until he struck 140-degree, lithium-rich water. From this hole sprung Desert Hot Springs, the self-described City of Health, operated “for the sake of suffering humanity.” The sick and elderly came from around the world to this sandy Fountain of Youth, looking for a fresh start, or at least to put some new life back into their old bones.

Cabot Yerxa is best known, however, for his eponymous pueblo, which he built in the style of the Hopi Indians. Although the building is a sprawling creation that accreted over 23 years (there are 150 windows and 65 doors) Cabot built the place to fit his diminutive stature, so it feels somehow miniature. This may have been a practical matter, an outcome of the use what you have desert ethos; for decades, wood, nails, poles, and windows were all gradually transplanted - from the abandoned settlements of those homesteaders who just gave up - into Cabot’s imitation Hopi pueblo.

No one in Desert Hot Springs seems to know anything about Cabot’s quixotic counterpart, Betty Hamilton, whose memory is kept afloat by just one clipping and a few photographs in the little cardboard box at the library. “Kingdom of the Dolls” was Betty’s labyrinthine project, a museum of history that continually packed exhibit upon exhibit into a plain and modest building on Pierson Boulevard. In it, she single-handedly reconstructed the history of civilization, depicting scenes and events as faithfully as she could, all at the scale of eleven-inch dolls.

Although the earliest scenes in the Kingdom are a cluster from 2000 to 1000 BC - the Minoan palace at Knossos, ancient Egypt’s Karnak Temple, and the Wailing Wall - Betty began her project with the Palace of Versailles, which was populated with 20-cent dolls modified to become Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, her ladies-in-waiting, and courtiers. After more than twenty years Betty had assembled dozens of tableaux, all based on her studies of photographs and artwork, including the beheading of Anne Boleyn; an 1880’s San Francisco street scene; a depiction of the Colosseum with Romans, Christians, and lions; the fraudulent trial of Mary Queen of Scots; and a Black Sabbath concert. For some time, Betty built and stored the exhibits at home. Eventually, they took up so much space that her husband constructed a building in their front yard that was devoted entirely to her passion.

Hundreds of dolls from the five and dime store were sculpted, painted, and decorated with the appropriate garb, which Betty made herself. She crafted the architecture entirely from discarded odds-and-ends: the wheels on Napoleon’s coach, for instance, were ice cream container lids and the “hubcaps” were champagne corks. A partial inventory is enough to suggest landfill: paper towel tubes, carpet scraps, coffee grounds, lollypop sticks, split ping pong balls, an air-conditioner filter, garter pins, hair curlers, thumbtacks, a pie tray, and Betty’s own hair. But the one photograph of Betty standing beside her handiwork gives the impression that it’s all come together into quite a satisfying depiction.

If there is anything unsettling about the photograph, it might be that the scale of the dolls and their kingdom seems a little too big. Betty is almost dwarfed by the miniature San Francisco, and its denizens appear quite capable of insurrection. When compared to the exterior photograph of the museum, one can’t help but wonder how many scenes could possibly have fit into the building. The newspaper clipping about “Kingdom of theDolls” closes with Betty quoted as saying, “There’s still room in the middle of the floor. But when that’s gone, I don’t know. It’s going to be a terribly sad day when I run out of room.”

Desert Hot Springs is booming now. A wave of development has crashed in from Los Angeles, a hundred miles away, and the open space is being built up into generic suburban homes that are bedizened with amenities like rounded corners, volume ceilings, and automatic sprinkler systems. In between the houses are wide roads, transplanted palm trees, and rocks in all the right places. The churches, meth labs, and spas are still around and Cabot Yerxa’s pueblo is a historic landmark. But there is a real estate office now where “Kingdom of the Dolls” used to be.

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