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The wizard of odd

Salem resident set to unveil his 'cabinet of curiosities'

The crowd of proper Bostonians would gather outside the auditorium hours before a performance -- then race in, fighting for seats in the front row. Moments later, the "man of India Rubber," the amazing "joint positionist," would appear, contorting his body into excruciating shapes before his gasping audience.

On the second floor, wax figures of stately Revolutionary War heroes stood alongside bloodthirsty pirates in their "horrid" den. And in the grand hallway, known as "The Hall of Cabinets," giant glass cases housed suits of medieval armor, deadly, 18-foot-long serpents, and the famous Feejee Mermaid, a mythical creature from the South Seas that was half woman, half fish.

The Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts on Tremont Street, the grandest of Boston's 19th-century curio halls, was part science, part wax museum, and part circus act. Popular in the 1840s and 1850s, the likes of it haven't been seen since -- until tonight.

From 7 p.m. to midnight, Mr. Marcus's Empire Museum will open its doors in Central Square, Cambridge. For $10, visitors will enter a former Oddfellows Hall transformed by movie-quality sets into a century-old museum of 1,000 oddities like those seen in the Boston Museum's eclectic exhibition hall. Jugglers and "girls with snakes" will round out the show.

"We have piranhas from South America. Good 7-inch ones, too. These aren't guppies," said Salem resident Christian Marcus, the exhibit's 27-year-old promoter. "We have eels. There's some debate on whether they're electric -- our researchers have been hesitant to put their hands in the tanks. We have an extensive collection of safari gear. A couple of bird skeletons . . . a polar bear rug . . . tattooed girls. And our own Feejee Mermaid. I couldn't do this without her."

For Marcus, a self-described self-made entrepreneur and former stage manager at the Actors Workshop in Boston, the Empire Museum is a slightly twisted dream come true. As a teenager growing up in Danvers, Marcus (his last name is Florendo, but he goes by his middle name) fell in love with "Ripley's Believe It or Not" and began collecting bizarre relics and strange trinkets.

A member of the Boston Athenaeum library, he began researching the city's old-time curiosity halls about five years ago and struck upon the idea of one day recreating the defunct Boston Museum.

"It was 25 cents to get in, which was a lot of money back then. But they offered you a lot," he said. "If you take 25 percent of what the Museum of Fine Arts has, 25 percent of what the Boston Public Library has, 35 percent of what the Museum of Science has, and countless other Harvard closets, and put them into one small building, it would have been something to see."

Recreating a "cabinet of curiosities" hasn't been easy, though, Marcus said. It's taken months for his team of about 15 helpers to design and construct museum sets, including a safari display. His sword juggler backed out this week at the last minute, and his advertising budget is so tight, he can barely afford a megaphone.

Fortunately, fellow lovers of the bizarre have taken to his project. Last year, he acquired 47 crates of odd artifacts from a London collection for a mere pound. His apartment, meanwhile, is chock full of everything from old-time movie memorabilia to a collection of Danvers State Hospital keys to a severed hand dipped in wax, which he calls "The Hand of Glory."

In Salem, the East India Marine Society, an early precursor to the Peabody Essex Museum, created the city's first "cabinet of curiosities" in 1799. The display included a seashell collection, a pair of gold boxes from Sumatra, and a "petrified mushroom cup and stem," according to the diary of the Rev. William Bentley, who chronicled the city's history.

"These were the first specimens given. Then everyone started giving them," said Salem historian Jim McAllister. "It became sort of routine for members to bring back items of curiosities from around the world."

Eventually, all the major curio halls in Boston -- Bowen's Columbian Museum, Mix's New Haven Museum, and the New England Museum (the name museum was used loosely) -- became consolidated under the Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts, which proprietor Moses Kimball opened in 1841, according to several historical sources, including Claire McGlinchee's book, "The First Decade of the Boston Museum."

Oddly, while upper-class Bostonians of the 1840s scoffed at attending "immoral" plays such as "Macbeth," they flocked to the Boston Museum to peer at ghastly animal carcasses such as the Feejee Mermaid -- in reality, fish parts sewed onto a papier-mch skeleton -- or hokey, dust-covered historical displays.

"It was a time when everything was unimaginable. A time of no facts. No Google," said Nancy Richard, director of the Library and Special Collections at the Bostonian Society, trying to explain the appeal.

With the rise of vaudeville and traveling circuses, the popularity of curio halls began to fade in the 1860s, and by the 1880s, the Boston Museum had almost entirely switched over to a dramatic theater house. By 1903, it was gone.

Marcus said his Empire Museum will be so realistic, visitors will think they've walked into a time machine. He hopes to take his show on the road to Providence, Portsmouth, and Coney Island later this year, and eventually find a permanent home for his "thinking man's fun house."

"A success, in my mind, would be if I recoup my costs," he joked. "But in my heart, I want to inspire people. I felt you had to bring back the romantic curiosity in the world around us. The people from the Victorian era never saw a pineapple. That was a curiosity. There's still things out there for people to see."

"Mr. Marcus's Empire Museum" opens at 7 p.m. tonight for one night only in the Oddfellows Hall, also known as the Dance Complex, at 536 Massachusetts Ave. in Central Square, Cambridge. Admission is $10. For more information, see www.empiremuseum.com. 

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