The Celebrity Collector

Comedian Rip Taylor Collects Kachina Dolls

By Ken Hall 

Rip Taylor traces his fascination with kachina dolls and other objects from the Southwestern United States to a motor trip he took years ago, from Albuquerque, N.M., to Sedona, Ariz., to visit his friend, the late singer-dancer Ann Miller. "The area just spoke to me, it was so beautiful and mysterious," Taylor said. "Ann Miller lived in Sedona, and she died there, too. So did Donald O'Connor."

Taylor, the manic prop comedian who has made a career out of peppering his audiences with confetti in between zippy one-liners, lives in Los Angeles, but his heart resides in Arizona and New Mexico. "Ann introduced me to the area, and I've been back many times, to visit and attend the annual Indian Swap Meet in Santa Fe," Taylor said. He's been to the event the past four years.

While at the show, Taylor goes on the hunt for jewelry and other Southwestern objects, but mostly it's to add to his kachina doll collection. He has 40 of the dolls in his home. They are on a massive wall display 18' high and 20' long with clear glass shelves. "It's mirrored, and with the glass shelves it looks like the dolls are floating. It's quite striking. It really shows the dolls nicely."

To call them dolls is actually a misnomer. Kachinas (or katsinas) are actually stylized religious icons. They are meticulously carved from cottonwood root and painted to represent figures from Hopi mythology. Authentic kachina dolls are made only by Hopi artists who have dedicated their lives to this art. It takes years of practice and religious study to master the art of kachina carving.

Kachina dolls are made in the various likenesses of the supernatural guardians of the Hopi (and Zuni) tribes. They were often given to little girls carved by their biological fathers as one of the first objects of spiritual importance. As infants, the girls received flat dolls with featureless heads. As the girl grew older, the dolls (sometimes referred to as tihu) became more realistic and detailed.

Hopi craftsmen carved kachina dolls from cottonwood roots using a knife and rasp. The simpler dolls were fashioned from single pieces of wood; the more elaborate ones were two or more pieces fit together with tiny wooden pegs. Each doll was painted and decorated to accurately depict a specific dancer. Some exhibited traditional, stylized forms; others, more active, lifelike figures.

Each kachina doll is believed to contain a portion of the power of the spirit it represents. It captures spirits, legend has it, that appear in the ordinary world as objects like plants, birds, animals and clouds. Eagles and wolves were popular early kachinas, as were buffalos and even neighboring tribespeople. Kachinas have been discovered dating to around the early part of the 19th century.

It wasn't until the 1930s, when tourists began visiting the Southwestern United States, that much was known of the history of the kachinas. Visitors witnessed kachina ceremonies with adult males representing kachinas in song and dance and wanted to know more. They also wanted souvenirs. Dolls ranging in height from 8" to 22" began to be collected, and the trend continues now.

When kachinas with a history and provenance come up for bid at auction as they have with more frequency in recent years they generally sell for between $150 and $5,000. But a few have actually sold for as much as $30,000. Knockoffs, mostly from Mexico and Korea, have flooded the market, so it's important to do a little investigative research before buying. Not all kachinas are Hopi.

Taylor is the first to admit he's no connoisseur or historian when it comes to kachinas. "I just like the way they look and the traditions they represent," he said. Other items in his home that reflect a fondness for the Southwest include a Native American headdress with feathers; a painted cattle skull; a pair of decorated pillows; and a hand-crafted rug, positioned in the center of his living room.

Two of his kachina dolls that hold special significance were gifts from his longtime friend, Debbie Reynolds. "She's like me, she loves the art and the feel of the area," he said, adding, "It's kind of spooky, but when you visit there you just experience little paranormal episodes and see things, and you go, 'Whoa, did I just see what I think I saw?' and the locals go, 'Yup, you sure did.'"

Taylor has a similar effect on audiences when he does his comedy show they can't quite believe what they're seeing and hearing. Known for his high-pitched voice, zany wigs, handlebar mustache, toothy grin and burly physique, Taylor's schtick is to toss handfuls of confetti from a paper bag onto his audience. If a joke happens to bomb, he'll often yell, "I don't dance, folks this is it!"

Born Charles Elmer Taylor in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1934, Rip Taylor began tossing out one-liners in area night clubs. He also got work doing voice-overs on the hit cartoon series "The Jetsons," in 1962. His big break came in 1969, when he appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" as a young comic. Sullivan, forgetting Taylor's name, said, "And here he is, 'The Crying Comedian.'"

Without knowing it, Sullivan had stumbled on Taylor's niche, and gave him the gimmick he needed to propel his career forward. A Las Vegas show producer saw his performance on TV and booked him to star alongside Eleanor Powell at the fabled Dunes Hotel. An instant hit, Taylor was held over an additional four weeks. That led to more bookings, and he became a Las Vegas fixture.

Taylor has headlined with stars such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Debbie Reynolds, Ann-Margret, Judy Garland and Mac Davis and that's just in Las Vegas. On TV, he has been seen on numerous talk shows (David Letterman, Merv Griffin), game shows ("The Gong Show," "Hollywood Squares") and situation comedies ("The George Lopez Show," "Life With Bonnie").

Taylor even hosted a game show, the short-lived "$1.98 Beauty Pageant" (1978), a send-up of beauty pageants produced by "Gong Show" creator/host Chuck Barris. Once, on an episode of "Super Password," things went awry when another celebrity guest, Patty Duke, gave away the secret word by mistake. Screaming "That's not fair!", Taylor tore off his wig and threw it in the air.

The idea for the confetti was actually born during an appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show." Taylor's jokes weren't going over very well, so he took his and Merv's scripts and tore them up into little scraps of paper and threw them out into the audience. Then he knocked Griffin's desk over and ran out of the theatre. The people in the audience loved it, as did viewers at home.

Actually, Taylor has tackled serious roles, too. He portrayed Demi Moore's crusty boss in the 1993 film, "Indecent Proposal," as well as Kate Hudson's father in the Rob Reiner film "Alex and Emma." Other film credits include "Home Alone 2," "Wayne's World," "Silence of the Hams," "E, Healer," "Grid Runners," "Repossessed," and Cheech & Chong's "Things Are Tough All Over."

In 1994, Taylor received an Emmy nomination for his role as Uncle Fester in the animated TV series, "The Addams Family." He was also the voice of "Captain Kiddie" in the animated movie "Tom and Jerry" (in which he sang the title song, "I've Done It All," directed by Henry Mancini). He has numerous other voice-over credits on his resume, including the Genie in Disney's "Duck Tales."

Call him what you want "The Crying Comedian," "The Prince of Pandemonium," "The Maharajah of Mayhem," "The Count of Chaos" or "The King of Confetti" there's no denying that Rip Taylor has been delighting audiences for 40+ years with his bright costumes, outrageous props, wacky wigs and colorful confetti. It's a safe bet even the kachina dolls on his shelves are laughing.

Fans of Rip Taylor may write to the star c/o Cunningham Escott Dipine, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Ste. 140, Los Angeles, CA 90025.


Credit: Some information for this article was provided by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz., home to many kachina dolls and other Native American artifacts. For more information, you may click on www.heard.org. 

 

With over 40 years in the entertainment business, Rip knows just about everybody. Here he is with Phyllis Diller.

This miniature
germination doll, by Silas Roy, is just 5.5" high.

Kachina dolls have become such a hot collectible numerous books have been written on the subect.

This doll, made by Ronald Honyumptewa, depicts an ogre woman with weapons.

Supai kachina doll made by the Hopi craftsman Lester Quanimptewa.

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