Having been a TV lamp enthusiast for many years one might assume that I'd be hard to impress, but my trip to the beautiful town of Northfield, Minnesota in May of 2006 left me speechless. (well, almost!) My destination was Antiques of Northfield, a combination antique mall and TV lamp museum owned by Carole Christensen. Many know her as "Lulu LeMay", an alias she used for years, but today she is happy to be known simply as Carole. I had the pleasure of spending a day taking photographs throughout the museum and "talking TV lamps" with her, and along the way learned the origin of her alter-ego and heard the story behind the spectacular 1,000-plus TV lamp collection.
In the '80s Carole spent a good deal of time traveling with her father to auctions and flea markets, and on such an excursion a figurative planter fitted with a light fixture caught her eye. She asked her father about the peculiar device and found it to be a TV lamp, a curious relic from the 1950s. Intrigued by the myriad of designs, Carole decided that the affordable lamps would make an interesting collection. Assuming that probably less than 100 different designs were ever made, she began to acquire an array of lamps that span the extremes of decorative mid-century pottery, from beautiful to tacky. Today the collection is difficult to inventory, but the total number is well above 1,000. Carole graciously consented to share her story:
At the coffee house across the street from Antiques of Northfield, Carole shared her thoughts on the TV lamp phenomenon: "I always tell people, it's like a cautionary tale, be careful what you start because you don't know where it's going to go sometimes. I thought I was going to get twenty or thirty lamps. I'll get them all, you know, get what they made. TV lamps... how many could their be? You get to 100 and like, oh man, what am I doing?! Then you have to decide, OK, am I going to keep going or not?"
TV lamp collecting has changed since she began acquiring them in 1981, on-line sources greatly expanding the hobby. I mentioned the difficulty I've experienced in keeping track of which lamps I had, and found I wasn't alone in facing this problem: "People always say, how do you keep track of all these? I just recognize what I haven't seen before. It is harder now, because with eBay there's so many things that you see. When I started it was the one you came across, and you bought it."
As her collection grew, so did her interest in learning about the obscure TV lamp manufacturers. She was puzzled, as was I, by the Bangs, Texas marking on the Kron lamps: "I bought my first siamese cats, with the cut-out eyes, in Canton (An enormous monthly flea market in Texas), and it said Bangs, Texans Inc. on the bottom, and I'm like, OK?! It's fortunate that you're doing the research now while the people are still around. That's what I always think, especially with Lane & Co. and Maddux we were talking about. You know, you wait too long and there's not even going to be anyone around that knows anything about it. Because it's all up here that they're carrying it around. It's not like there's some museum sitting somewhere where they can be discovered, you know. Who even made a lot of these? We still don't know. You can guess, you know, I get a feel for patterns and glazes and you get to where you can recognize it and figure it must be made by so-and-so, but you don't know."
While antique-hunting with her father, a curious find was the genesis for her collection: "We used to go to flea markets, and what I really liked was art-deco, back in the early '80s, I was 21, and it [art-deco] was hot then, really hot, and it was expensive. I loved all the artistic nudes and all that stuff. It was all hundreds of dollars, and I didn't have hundreds of dollars, but I'd find little pieces here and there you know, mirrors and things. I came across the two Borzoi Dogs, one standing up and one laying down, and I looked at it, and it was like, well, I know it's that ugly '50s stuff, but it is kind of art-deco, and it was black. And I thought, well, it's kind of a cool planter, I can probably work with that, you know, and I looked at it and it's like, 'Dad, who put a light bulb in a planter, that's kind of weird, what is this?' That's a TV lamp. 'What? What's a TV lamp?' Well, you weren't supposed to watch TV in the dark."
"They had another one there, the ubiquitous two-horse mother and colt lamp, it's got to be like the most common TV lamp. The borzoi was twelve bucks and that was six bucks. So I got them home, cleaned them up, and thought hmm, TV lamps, now that would be kind of an interesting thing to collect, just because it's kind of weird... I had never heard of them. It must have been fairly early in the summer that year, because then we went up to a little town in the Brainerd Lakes area and did the flea market up there. It was a teeny flea market, like a 25-dealer flea market, and there's somebody that has two more TV lamps, she had a duck and then she had that Lane leaf lamp, and I bought that there. And I remember thinking, oh god, some of these are really ugly! But I got to collecting them, and they were cheap, you know, ten bucks, or twelve, or six. So I started buying them, and decided OK, well I'm going to collect them, so I'm going to buy every one I can find, if I can afford it...I'm not going to pay more than twenty bucks for one. So I went for years with the $20 limit, and I was pretty good about sticking to it, too. But then of course they began creeping up, and of course me being the one-man influence of this area, I think I was personally responsible for prices going up on them because, you know, I was buying them! Then I went up to $40, I think the most I paid for one was $45, and then I got down to Canton and the siamese cat with two kittens shows up, eighty-five bucks, and I'm like, Oh god...well OK, I paid eighty-five bucks. Now I think I'm up to, with shipping, $800. That's my top-dollar so far. Yea, that was the Claes two tigers. I started on eBay in '97. That's like the biggest heroin addiction fix, the first time you go on eBay. A friend of mine told me about eBay, and I said "do they have TV lamps on there?", and she said I'm sure they do...like 300! I had a good job then, and was buying like one or two a day. It was like, "I don't have that one, I don't have that one", twenty bucks, fifteen bucks. You can still get some bargains if you're persistent."
Over time, Carole had to rent warehouse space to accommodate the collection, but it was far from an ideal situation: "I was at the point where, "This is just ridiculous, I've got a thousand lamps, nobody sees them but me, I want them out, I want them plugged in, this is what I want to do". I quit my job, started the antique mall... life's too short! I paid to have electricians come in to do the whole wiring thing, put plugs all around, and re-did it so the mall would function well with the electrical. This place has $25,000 worth of electrical work, so I wasn't kidding around!"
Carole says she has nowhere near all the different TV lamps produced, and still adds to the collection on occasion. Of particular interest currently are the Claes products, the lamps made by the California designer Leland Claes: "I have slowed down an awful lot. I've got a few searches on eBay, you know they send you e-mail, that's how I knew the Claes leopard was up. I beat someone from Japan for that one."
As much as she loves collecting TV lamps, Carole has tried to avoid being the spokesperson for the hobby, preferring to "fly under the radar". I asked her about the alias she once used in the collecting world... Where's Lulu?: "Again, I think it's the same thing about I don't want to be the one. It's this thing about who would do this? Who is this person out there buying all these lamps? It's kind of this alias I made up...what kind of person would she be? Well, she's eccentric, and has collected all these lamps, and can't have anyone over now because there's too many lamps and there's no room. She'd probably be committed but, you know. But I'm a professional person, I do have a business, and I kind of did want to have her over there and me over here. Who is she? Well she's Lulu LeMay! Actually I think she has dark brunette hair, maybe in a kind of bouffant, kind of lives in the '50s. She wasn't really born there, but by golly, that's where she lives. She's just this other person, and it works out well. So where Lulu came from... I don't know really. She's not based on anyone I know, she's basically an imaginary character that I created. Why Lulu? I don't know, it's just a '50s thing. LeMay is from gold lemay. It just sounded good together!"
Assembling a collection that is second to none, Carole Christensen has put together a beautiful display and a great antique mall. She's a charming lady that has finally found her "happy place", and like it or not, in the TV lamp collecting world, she is definitely the one.
- Mark Stevens