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Dimitri's tiny Big Top museum

Dimitri with one of his prize elephants. Keystone

As the renowned Swiss clown, Dimitri, celebrates his 65th birthday, his museum in the southern canton of Ticino has been attracting crowds of visitors.

This content was published on September 18, 2000 - 15:35

A far cry from the kind of dull places which tend to leave the visitor more drained than entertained, the museum is very much in character with the country's best loved clown.

It´s tiny, only four rooms. Flamboyant - the walls are the colours of a circus tent. It has funny opening hours - 5pm to midnight. And it's the country's one and only clown museum.

"It was a long-held dream of Dimitri´s to have a museum, but at first he dreamed of having a cafe with a bit of a museum in it, with objects on display and clowns waiting on the tables," explains the director of the Teatro Dimitri, Markus Kunz,

"But then (the exhibition designer) Harald Szeeman, Dimitri's close friend, said 'no, let´s make a real museum, not a dead one'".

The tiny hamlet of Verscio, nestled in the rugged hills above the northern shore of Lago Maggiore, is a sleepy place, with cobblestones paving hair-raisingly narrow streets flanked by the the typical grey stone houses of Ticino.

Most visitors are blissfully unaware this is an internationally-acclaimed nest for thespians. The only indications are the bright red hand-painted signs along the way pointing to the Teatro Dimitri.

This is where the great Swiss clown set up his own tiny theatre, school and actors´ company in the 1970s, complete with quaint cafe. And this is where he finally opened his own museum in August.

The museum has been installed above a tiny area which acts as an organic coffee serving cafe and ticket-booth. It looks onto a picturesque courtyard in which the 30 or so students who attend the school's three-year programme are sitting soaking up the bright sunshine.

The first room, filled with bright orangey-yellow, is a revelation. "This room contains elephants of all shapes, sizes and countries of origin, which Dimitri collected during 30 years of travels" says Kunst.

"His passion was spurred by an act he did many years ago at the Circus Knie with an elephant. From that moment on, Dimitri started to collect them, and friends and fans started giving them to him as gifts."

The room is packed with everything from tacky fur animals to hand-made cloth ones created by Dimitri's mother, who was also an artist.

Then, there´s a green room in which a multitude of wind and string instruments, take centre stage. Some were played by Dimitri, others - like an antique wooden guitar with a star-shaped centre made in Bellinzona - are of particular sentimental and commercial value.

Complementing the instruments themselves is a six piece set of pint-sized stone-sculpted musicians, the artwork of Enzo Jelmolini, a local man who died in the 1960s.

The third of the tight-fit rooms is red. It houses Dimitri´s clown collection. Begging for most attention in the glass display cabinets is a bald wig that means little to the visitor, until its owner is revealed.

"This is a wig that belonged to Grock," Kunz points out, adding that he was "the country's other great comical son - this one from French-speaking Switzerland." Dimitri thus affectionately pays tribute to his colleague, and in a similar vein, Dimitri´s daughter honours her father with a clown puppet whose features have been made to resemble his.

The last area, painted a dramatic purple, is the most dynamic. Here clips from old black and white comic films, starring the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are shown to those who manage to squeeze into the darkened room. Old movie music fills the room, and when the show is over its ceiling is an astounding sight to behold.

It is covered with masks of all sorts: there is a big pink pig´s snout, an African witch doctor´s mask, oriental masks, and a range of Venetian and Swiss carnival masks.

It is a unique museum, unlike anything one might expect. The displays have been set up with tongue-in-cheek attention to detail.

A large yellow ceramic pachiderm, for instance, has been made to stand alongside a pair of bifocals, behind which a pea-sized jade elephant has been comically placed. Of the 666 items on show, there is a bit of everything, from made-in-China stuffed toys to antiques dating back to the 1700s - all collected by Dimitri.

The museum begs one question: what kind of a clutter must Dimitri´s house have been in before he finally opened his museum.

by Juliet Linley


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