Barbie’s Dream Cult

collection of Barbie dolls displayed on chain link fence in the sunshine

Fun in the sun. A handful of the hundreds of dolls in Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill.

If you were a kid that played with dolls and ever wondered whatever happened to them, now we know. They ended up here, on an overgrown former basketball court in Polish Hill.

Barbie dolls are everywhere[1]. Placed into tree branches and tied to fencing, dangling from a basketball hoop and performing headless yoga in the buff. They appear in clustered groups large enough to field a sports team and as loners cast off into the mud. Some look joyful–in relaxed repose, absorbing the morning sunshine–others have been abused and contorted, stripped bare and dismembered.

And then, rising from the twisted, haphazardly-tossed little bodies at the rear of the space, is the motherlode. At least a hundred dolls–probably more–forming the shape of a giant Valentine’s heart across a wide section of chain link fence.

large number of Barbie dolls hung on a chain link fence in the shape of a heart

Big love. The heart at the center of Barbie’s dream cult.

“Part Marwen, part Jonestown Massacre,” was artist Lisa Valentino‘s brief description after coming across the collection of Barbies on one of her WATSOP (Walk All the Streets of Pittsburgh) hikes. That enticing teaser, plus a handful of photos, was all it took to send the Orbit on a mad dash to see for ourselves.

You could accurately call this little out-of-control diorama a Pink Plastic Crime Scene or maybe Return to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s both the oxymoronic street art in the woods and an exploded American fantasy. Ultimately, between the Druidic imagery of The Wicker Man and the visions of The Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate lingering in the cranium, we settled on Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Welcome-to-the-Cult Hostess Barbie

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence with wooden hex symbol

High Druid Priestess Barbie

Barbie has done a lot of things in her 60+ year history. Why, the Mattel Corporation is not so tone deaf here in the 21st century as to ignore expanding their flagship brand into all manner of dress-up outfits. One can now purchase Barbie the trial judge, astronaut, entomologist, astrophysicist, and robotics engineer. On her time off from drilling cavities and performing root canals at the dentist’s office, Barbie, D.D.S., enjoys beekeeping, pet-grooming, baseball, art, and tending chickens in the backyard. The list goes on and on.

That’s all great … but none of these focused, career-minded young ladies ended up here. No, among the hundreds of dolls scattered about, we spotted exactly one roller-skater, one Jazzerciser, and one apparent employee of Pizza Hut wearing a cropped t-shirt and miniskirt combo that almost certainly fails to meet the restaurant chain’s dress code.

Despite the wide array of careers and avocations Barbie is now free to pursue, the cult clearly appeals most to a more conservative–or, at least, traditional–young lady, almost entirely white and blonde, whose sartorial preferences lean toward pink party dresses and formal evening gowns[2].

dolls dressed in Pizza Hut shirt and roller skater gear

Sent-Home-With-a-Warning Barbie / Roller Skater Barbie

collage of Barbie dolls in fancy dresses

Formal dress Barbies

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that these are just plastic dolls that happened to end up the way most of their fellow children’s toys do: played-with, dropped in the dirt, broken-apart, and left behind. We find them in the street all the time.

That said, it has to be noted that today, in the #MeToo era, the image of so many post-adolescent/not-quite-fully-adult young women, lifeless, often stripped bare, and dramatically discarded in the woods, is somewhere between disconcerting and hardcore creepy. Hopefully you’ve never come across anything like this in real life, but watch any episode of Law & Order or Broadchurch–let alone the evening news–and it will often feature a similar-looking tragic young victim as Plot Point 1.

collage of blond Barbie doll heads on pavement

Heads-a-poppin’ Barbies

Barbie dolls dressed in bathrobe and exercise outfit

Rough Morning Barbie / Jazzercise Barbie

If Jan and/or Dean are still fantasizing over the mythical Surf City’s two-to-one gender ratio, they’ll completely flip their noggins when they arrive at Barbie’s Dream Cult. Kens do make  appearances here–both in the big Barbie art heart and tossed around the premises–but they’re easily outnumbered ten- or twenty-to-one.

If you’re a Ken, that’s the good news. (I guess?) The bad news is the Kens have been brutalized as much as any of the Barbies. Missing limbs, heads, and all/most of their clothes, Kens are found covered in dirt, with their pants around their ankles, buck naked, and frozen into ice. Maybe Surf City was a better plan after all.

collage of Ken dolls resting on dirt

Hey, ladies! Pants-Around-the-Ankles Ken / Which-Way-to-the-Phish-Concert Ken

collage of Ken dolls frozen in an icy creek

What a way to go. Two versions of You-Messed-with-the-Wrong-Barbie Ken

The obvious question: what are all these Barbie dolls doing here? For this we need to declare an official Spoiler Alert. We received some insider information, but if you’d rather not know and just let it remain a mystery, feel free to skip ahead.

We were lucky enough to get this short history from a Polish Hill resident, intimately involved with Barbie’s Dream Cult:

The Barbie heart story started originally with a guy in the neighborhood who bought all the Barbies to make an art car. Other people in the neighborhood felt the car was creepy and people started to say things on the Internet insinuating he was some kind of pervert and that they wished him harm. So, the gentleman took the Barbies off his car and well, what else do you do with that many Barbies? He graciously donated them to the abandoned courts.

In the beginning they were all in bags and rubber tubs and they sat there for a while. I took em out to write my name in Barbies and photograph it. Since then, they’ve been getting thrown all over the place. The heart was made by another human who wanted to remain mysterious about its origins and meanings.

collage of broken dolls found in the woods

Headless Yoga Barbie / Arm-Where-It-Shouldn’t-Be Ken / Whole-Lotta-Pink-Hair Barbie / Half-a-Horse

Barbie dolls placed in thick vine wood

Run for your life! Escape-While-You-Still-Can Barbies

Now, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone in the neighborhood considers leaving bags of Barbie dolls outside for public dismemberment is a “gracious donation.” From our vantage point, though, it’s an intriguing opportunity.

We can think of a lot worse things than this little abandoned corner of Polish Hill becoming a kind of ever-changing Barbie art park, outdoor creative space, or just another weird Pittsburgh thing to discover. It could also be a one-of-a-kind, no-questions-asked Barbie lending library: Need a Barbie? Take a Barbie. Have a Barbie? Leave a Barbie.

Barbie doll placed in a tree branch

Footloose, fancy-free, and hanging in a tree Barbie

Barbie takes a lot of well-deserved heat–for her does-not-exist-in-nature body proportions, reliably Aryan features, and dress-up-and-look-pretty career goals. This is a chance to counter that–to take a tiny amount of the world’s Barbies and do something new and innovative with them.

The last thing Marine Biologist Barbie or Wildlife Conservationist Barbie want is for the mountain of molded pink plastic the Mattel Corporation has brought into the world to end up casually thrown out, minced up, and washed out to sea for an even larger Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the real doctrine of Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Naked and not ashamed. Nudist Colony Barbie


[1] We’re using the names Barbie and Ken generically here. The dolls likely come from many different sources and are not necessarily all Barbie® brand toys.
[2] In fairness, many of the dolls have been stripped of all clothing, so it’s impossible to establish if these may have originally worn different outfits.

Swinging for DeBence’s: Pipe Dreams and Piano-Playing Robots at the Antique Music World

antique calliope at DeBence Antique Music World

These pipes are smokin’! A deluxe calliope at DeBence Antique Music World in Frankin, PA.

Close your eyes and imagine what a robot looks like. Chances are, you might conjure up a blocky sci-fi stereotype–all shiny metal, wires, and blinking lights, rolling around assisting space forces in a stilted computer voice. Others may envision the kinds of already-in-the-real-world robots currently zipping through assembly plants and fulfillment centers with lightning precision, or the pure artificial intelligence powering high-tech interactive devices everywhere.

Whatever you’re thinking of, it doesn’t look like this.

wooden piano attachment to mechanically play a standard piano at DeBence Antique Music World

80 (or so) fingered mechanical piano-playing robot

A large, handmade wooden cabinet–maybe six feet long, four feet high, and at least 18 inches deep–is placed directly in front of a full-size upright piano, rendering the instrument completely inaccessible to any human hands that might wish to tickle the ebony and/or ivory. The add-on unit takes input in the form of elaborate scrolls and translates the paper’s precisely-cut notches to the mechanical operation of eighty-some wooden fingers, one placed on each (almost) of the piano’s keys*.

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion at DeBence Antique Music World

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion

DeBence Antique Music World has one of these piano-playing appliance-attachment-robots on display and ready to crank up for a mini concert on your next visit. DeBence’s collection also includes elaborate coin-operated mechanical music machines, calliopes, band organs, and more evolutions of disk-playing music boxes and phonographs than you ever knew existed.

The museum, located 80-some miles north of Pittsburgh in the über-quaint “Oil Country” town of Franklin, is a little out of our typical reach. But DeBence–and the region’s other many out-of-the-way attractions–are well worth the easy day trip from home.

metal musical disk on antique player at DeBence Antique Music World

Regina music disk and player

brass horns attached to elaborate band organ at DeBence Antique Music World

band organ horns

It’s probably safe to say musicians, record collectors, and those excited by domestic history and the development of America during its boom years will have an extra special interest in DeBence. The sheer volume of intricate, hand-cut music disks and elaborate, room-filling multi-instrument machinery is awe-inspiring and humbling to anyone who’s already dabbled in the media, fiddled with sound, or rocked the wheels of steel.

But you don’t have to be a music freak to appreciate DeBence. Just experiencing all the little gears clicking in metric time, wooden mallets tick-tocking stacked xylophone blocks, and the hair-blown-back blasts of dozens of brass pipes squonking in unison is a fascinating spectacle. The objects–polished metal disks, dark hardwood cabinetry, hand-painted decorative details–could stand alone in a design museum without ever hearing them play.

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display at DeBence Antique Music World

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display

painted detail on band organ frame at DeBence Antique Music World

painted detail on band organ frame

But, oh–you know where this is going–at DeBence, you do get to hear them perform. The collection is no mere array of historical objects entombed behind glass. No, they really don’t make them like they used to–and part of that means you can still hand crank the coil spring of a c. 1890s disk-playing music box and hear its metallic tines ting-ting-tingling out the popular music of the day. Try seeing if your 10-year-old Zune is still up to the task.

Our crew was fortunate enough to have an excellent volunteer guide who not only knew his stuff, but took us on the full tour even when we slipped in the door just before closing time. We don’t know how many of DeBence’s machines are still in working order, but an enormous number of them got cranked-up, switched-on, or otherwise sprung to life for the tour–each full of beans and with a song to sing.

costumed figures playing bells inside Victorian music box at DeBence Antique Music World

Dumb bells. Jesters ready to strike in a 19th century music box.

gold-colored pipes of a home pipe organ at DeBence Antique Music World

organ pipes

It takes a whole lot of mind-bending technology to enable the history of recorded music to be beamed instantly through one’s digital device and straight into their psyche. That’s great and all, but there is an intangible loss in this convenience.

Maybe it’s an extreme rationalization from a part-time blogger and full time record collecting junkie, but something otherworldly happens when the black lacquer spins up, a tone arm adjusts over and drops down into place. There’s an electric moment of heightened sensation when we get just the barest static sizzle of a stylus in dead wax before the Side A, track 1 music kicks in. Sure: by any objective measure, it’s low-tech, obsolete, and patently nostalgic. But there’s a magic here you just don’t get with a Spotify stream.

wooden dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

handmade wooden Victrola dancer attachment

ceramic and textile dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

ceramic Victrola dancer attachment

If it seems like that today, imagine what the technology must have felt like to the Victorians–pre-radio, pre-motion picture, probably before most had ever talked on a telephone. Those early adopters, who first plunked-down an entire paycheck for a Victrola and then had to send off to Sears for a couple two-and-a-half-minute songs to play on them, must have lost their minds at the variety of voices and sounds coming to them from far, far away.

To see these old machines whir to life, sound spilling out–yes: creaking, wheezing, groaning, and, as Randy Jackson would say, “a little pitchy, dog,” at times–is a beautiful, transformative, and, yes, magical experience. I don’t know whether there’s a chance that gets your keister to dust off the phonograph and back in the record store [we’re rooting for you!] but it should at least get you up to Franklin.

Regardless, we can cross our fingers, hope the bellows push air, the paper score feeds the tickling digits, and the beautiful sound of magical music fills the air around you.

novelty decoration of real frog, stuffed with sawdust, holding a guitar at DeBence Antique Music World

Frog fantasy. Among DeBence’s novelties are many “real frogs stuffed with sawdust.”

exterior of DeBence Antique Music World, Franklin, PA

DeBence Antique Music World, downtown Franklin, PA

close-up of pump organ keyboard and stops

All the stops: Vox Humana, Gemshorn, Dulcissimo, etc.

Getting there: DeBence Antique Music World is located at 1261 Liberty Street in Franklin. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Pittsburgh. DeBence has regular hours through the warmer months, but slows down over winter, so check the museum’s web site to make sure you’ll be able to get in.


Almost. The unit doesn’t quite reach the full 88-key range of a standard piano keyboard. If you want to hit those super low notes, you’ll have to do that yourself.

The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason

KISS super collector Bruce Gleason in his New Kensington home

The collection is called The Elder’s Closet of Heroes. One enters through a short half flight of steps, past walls of signed album covers from the likes of Heart and Linda Ronstadt, Belinda Carlisle and Cher. This alone would be an impressive attraction for the memorabilia-curious but for the imposing, intriguing, and attention-grabbing feature mere feet away at the foot of the steps.

The stout wooden door looks like it came from another world. It is a standard size for an interior space in the quaint, pre-war bungalow that houses it, but everything else about the structure suggests the darkest depths of Mordor or a final line of defense against banshees.

What a knocker! Entrance to Gleason’s KISS collection modeled on album cover art for “Music from ‘The Elder'”

The door is strengthened with gridlike cross braces, an array of irregular brass tacks hammered in for folksy verisimilitude. The giant ornate iron knocker is placed just so, where the visitor’s first visual detail is an inscribed brass plaque with a verse from a KISS song called “A World Without Heroes” from their 1981 album Music from “The Elder”:

A world without heroes
Is like a world without sun
You can’t look up to anyone
Without heroes.

cover art for KISS’s 1981 album “Music from ‘The Elder'”

KISS, the bombastic stadium rock act whose over-the-top antics and Kabuki-meets-Stan Lee stage personas helped define American popular culture in the 1970s, is still going strong today. For the past four-and-a-half decades, the band is also likely the most merchandised musical group to ever accept your Visa or Mastercard. There are KISS-branded t-shirts, posters, books, and concert videos, of course, but the marketing goes way beyond the standard collection of musical ephemera.

Over the years, you could purchase KISS garbage cans, flying model rockets, bubble gum trading cards, and a knock-off Rubik’s Cube. There was a KISS pinball machine made by Bally in 1979; a KISS board game, checkers set, and jigsaw puzzle from the years prior. There are KISS sneakers, bedspreads, pillowcases, neckties, and sunglasses. If one wanted a giant teddy bear made up like The Catman or Space Ace, that is available, as are KISS Pez dispensers, lava lamps, die-cast miniature stock cars, HO scale model railroad trains, and a LEGO set depicting the band on stage.

Hello Kitty, meet The Catman

Not content to live in the past, KISS has totally gone totally Merch 2.0 with branded earbuds, thumb drives, mouse pads, and insulated travel mugs. Famous teetotalers both, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons are happy to supply you with KISS wine, ornate German-style beer steins, champagne flutes, shot glasses, bottle openers, and beer koozies.

And then of course there are the figures of KISS band members. Like the superhero characters they’re modeled on, Paul, Gene, Ace, and Peter have been turned into collectable dolls/action figures from six inches in height to several feet tall; adorned in various faithful touring costume iterations; rocking out in concert stage sets and alone with their thoughts; mythologized as Grecian gods in ornamental busts and as faces carved into a mini-Mount Rushmore.

On the other side of that incredible entrance door, Bruce Gleason, KISS super collector, has every single one of these–and a whole lot more.*

LEGO KISS stage set

Let’s put the “X” in Xmas: KISS ornaments

More precisely, Bruce has four of each. “The trouble with collecting KISS,” Bruce Gleason sighs, “Is that there’s never just one of anything–each band member has to get their own.”

While that’s not always the case–KISS M&Ms, condoms, and Christmas ornaments, for example, seem to be group-branded–for the most part it’s true. This results in many linear feet of Bruce’s basement shelf space, repurposed retail display racks, and enormous grab baskets devoted to individually-packaged figures nestled neatly side-by-side like the world’s most specialty of oddball boutiques.

KISS figures, Matchbox cars, soft blocks

one of two baskets overflowing with KISS plush toys

The packaged/made-for-the-collector’s-market items are impressive for both their volume and breadth [who knew the world needed KISS plush toys or a KISS skateboard?] but Bruce has a number of handmade pieces created by friends who understood how much he would appreciate them.

“My handmade pieces are my favorites,” Bruce says, “They’re all one-of-a-kind, but the most important reason is that friends have taken time to create something for me that I will absolutely love. I can purchase KISS items, which I love to do, but I can’t purchase someone’s creativity and thoughtfulness. These pieces are priceless to me.”

Plaster Casters: handmade, life size Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley figures

I haven’t met Bruce’s friends, but you can tell a lot about a person by the kinds of gifts he or she gives. You’ve got to love someone an awful lot to create all six-foot-something of a life-sized, tongue-waggling, codpiece-wearing Gene Simmons model or individually placing ersatz curly chest hairs on Paul Stanley’s likeness. Rest assured, full-size Ace and Peter, complete with the same tiny white repurposed jewelry model hands, are in Bruce’s basement as well.

handmade KISS nutcrackers

There’s a general truth that if it’s got a face, probably someone has slapped KISS makeup on it at some point. Let’s call it Beth’s Law.

That said, the handmade KISS nutcracker and marionette sets Bruce received from friends are truly some next-level fantasy-come-to-life. While they lack the sheer terror invoked by the trifecta of clown-like makeup, mannequins, and Gene Simmons, they make up for it in creativity and oddity.

Bruce tells us that KISS actually went on to market their own set of nutcrackers later on (surprise, surprise), but these predated that move. The marionettes are redecorated and bedazzled from a collection of puppets purchased in Mexico. The selection of Ace Frehley to be the one with the tequila bottle-turned-space beverage is a clever touch.

handmade KISS marionettes

handmade Gene Simmons marionette

This is all small potatoes compared to the elaborate big ticket items you’d expect to see in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame … err, Hard Rock Cafe, at least. There are eight sets of giant silver and black platform boots–exact likenesses of KISS stage gear for two different costume iterations; a dozen signed, framed replica gold albums; cymbals and drumsticks; Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons limited edition electric guitars.

“I would love to own an original record player from the ’70s in mint shape,” Bruce tells us, “I have seen them but have never let myself justify spending the amount of money they are worth. Other things I’d love to have: an original pinball machine and an original Ace Frehley signed guitar. His is the only signed guitar I do not have.”

Bruce goes on to say that he doesn’t actually have room in the basement for a pinball machine [your author can attest to this] and he’s got a strict rule that the collection doesn’t breach the main living floor of his house.

Strutter: Gleason’s collection replica platform boots

KISS collectables including signed gold record, Gene Simmons figurine, and four-headed ornament

Asked about his hopes for the collection, Bruce shares a dream that seems to cross all fandom–to be able to meet one’s heroes as equals:
My hope for my collection is that those who have seen it can appreciate the collection for what it shows and not what’s included–and that’s my love for this group of guys who have been a huge part of my life.  They have given me my sparks of creativity, my love for music of all kinds, my love of live music, and that’s it’s OK to be different and unique as long as you’re being yourself.
I would love for Gene, Tommy, Eric Singer, Eric Carr,  Paul, Ace, Bruce and Peter–all eight–to take a walk through my stage, without their boots, costumes, and makeup, just as eight regular guys. Then sit around my table and let me point out the things–toys, records, posters, or whatever–that meant something very special to me at the time and why.

Dark Light: rotating KISS lamp

It’s been said that one spends the first half of his or her life acquiring things and second half trying to get rid of them. On the ride home, Bruce’s ultimate fan archive sparked a, dare I say, existential conversation about the nature of collecting.

Why do we collect? Is the enjoyment in the possession or is it in the chase? Who do we share the collection with? What do we hope will happen to all our stuff?

Heavy questions, indeed, and not ones we’ll answer here. But if there’s anything that KISS can teach us it’s that you go big or go home. And, sweet Jesus, if you’re going big, you’d better shout it out loud.

Watchin’ You: busts of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss

The Collectors is a new series documenting people with extraordinary personal collections. If you are, or know of, someone with an interesting set of stuff, we’d love to know about it.


* Bruce doesn’t actually own one of the KISS pinball machines–more about this later in the piece.