Kitsch City, U.S.A.

Travel Blog  •  Sophia Dembling  •  06.05.09 | 10:32 AM ET

I certainly understand why some readers took exception to my assertion in a recent post that Las Vegas is among the must-see sights for Americans. Vegas is, indeed, a very silly place. But that silliness is what makes me love it—I have a very deep affection for all things kitschy, and Vegas is an entire kitsch city.

Photo by Tom Battles

Webster’s defines kitsch as “something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality”—as if that’s a bad thing.

Kitsch brings me great joy. It makes me laugh and buy snow globes and refrigerator magnets that I treasure forever (specifically, a snow globe from Weeki Wachee Springs and a Liberace refrigerator magnet.). And Flyover America is a veritable gold mine of kitsch, from the large (Las Vegas, Mount Rushmore) to the pocket-sized (jackalope postcards).

I have visited Graceland three times. I’ve been to the Tupperware Museum of Historic Food Containers (R.I.P., although there is still a Tupperware store at the company’s Orlando, Fla. headquarters). I’ve had my photo taken as the nose for an enormous replica of Buddy Holly’s glasses in Lubbock, Texas (although that might actually be too cool to be bona fide kitsch), alongside a sculpture of a giant peanut in Durant, Okla., and with a roadside cautionary Smokey Bear.

I will drive miles out of my way to pay respects to good kitsch, as this photograph of me worshiping the Man of Steel in Metropolis, Ill. attests. This photo op required a rather long detour on a road trip from Dallas to Chicago. But really, who could resist?

Are you a kitschaholic too? What’s your favorite Flyover America kitsch? I’ll go out of my way to see it.

Sophia Dembling

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is co-author of the Flyover America blog and author of "The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas." She would love to hear your tales of America, so drop her an email.

23 Comments for Kitsch City, U.S.A.

pam 06.05.09 | 11:51 AM ET

Hallelujah, Sophia. I’m off on a road trip later this summer and you can bet we’ll come squealing to a halt at anything promising the world largest whatever, the museum of obscure thingies, the historic no one’s heard of but the locals site. I. Am. There.

Oh, giant frying pan, big egg, Jake the alligator boy. All in Washington State. Though my absolute favorite was somewhere in Montana—the THIRD largest head of Abraham Lincoln in the US. The THIRD largest? Huh? What? Okay then!

Sophia Dembling 06.05.09 | 11:56 AM ET

THIRD largest? I guess you takes your superlatives as you can invent ‘em.

I’m guessing the largest is Mt. Rushmore, the second largest is the Lincoln Memorial, and the third largest is somewhere in Montana.

Sophia Dembling 06.05.09 | 12:15 PM ET

I feel compelled to point out that this photo was taken in the late 1980s or early 1990s, which explains the horrific mom jeans and white sneakers. A lot of very bad fashion things happened in that era.

The sweater, however, is a vintage Father Knows Best circa-1950s cardigan that I still wear.

Marcia 06.05.09 | 12:18 PM ET

I visited the Stonhenge replica west of Kerrville a few months ago. I was surprised how much I liked it.

Chelle Cordero 06.05.09 | 12:22 PM ET

Love the article!

richard m 06.05.09 | 12:33 PM ET

I used to say US 65 through Branson, but now they built the bypass so you can’t just drive by the “attractions.” But even driving in the vicinity of Branson is still incredibly kitschy anyway, just with the screaming billboards for Shoji, Dolly and her Dixie Stampede, and the must-be-cryogenically-preserved Andy Williams. And every five miles, another billboard for the what-has-to-be-astonishing Precious Moments Chapel…big-eyed cartoon children and all.  (disclosure—that’s in Carthage, not Branson) They don’t call Branson “Vegas with the fun removed” for nothing.

Closer to Dallas, I am still a big fan of the battle scene murals in the Alamo, where the Texan heroes look remarkably like John Wayne, Laurence Harvey, and Richard Widmark.

Sophia Dembling 06.05.09 | 12:45 PM ET

Oh yeah, Branson! I saw the Shoji show just for the kitsch value, and brought my husband a T-shirt. I haven’t been to the Precious Moments Chapel yet, but I have been to The Angel Museum near Milwaukee, which is a cousin to it.

One of the great long-lost museums in Nashville was the Barbara Mandrell museum, which included a replica of her bedroom, complete with crackers on the bedside table as tribute to her hit “You Can Eat Crackers in My Bed Anytime.”

Sophia Dembling 06.05.09 | 12:48 PM ET

Oh, and even historians agree that the John Wayne movie, The Alamo, contributed hugely to the reverence in which that historical event is held (a subject I cover in depth in my book, “The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas”—if you’ll forgive the small plug for it).

Meryl 06.05.09 | 1:48 PM ET

I can heartily recommend the “Land of Little Horses” which is somewhere in Pennsylvania; particularly around feeding time when the little horses express their big resentment of your interfering with their dinner.

Also, the Burt Parks statue in Atlantic City, NJ.  He’s holding out a crown and if you stand beneath it, he sings “Here she is, Miss America….”

Re: Vegas.  Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Ventura et al, should be required reading for anyone who thinks vernacular/commercial architecture has no importance, validity, or impact.

United States 06.05.09 | 1:53 PM ET

I went to Las Vegas last august alone and I had a ball. I met all kinds of people and as one previous poster said, Vegas is so full of people no one really knows that you are there alone. At night I would go sit in the Indigo lounge at Ballys (thats where i stayed) and people joined me at my table. I even met a couple of people from 2 other states (im in ca) whom i am still in contact with to this day.

Dan Daly 06.05.09 | 2:13 PM ET

If you’re looking for kitchy sites, don’t miss Carhenge near Alliance, Neb. It’s a replica of England’s Stonehenge, made entirely out of junk cars. Wall Drug near the Black Hills of South Dakota is right up there, too.

Chris 06.05.09 | 3:05 PM ET

Dan - Wall Drug is the king of all kitchy tourist traps. And while you’re in Nebraska, you can stop in Kearney to see the world’s longest escalator.

Pigeon Forge, TN (home of Dollywood) has to be really high on the list too. The Cabbage Patch Kid factory in Helen, GA will strike a chord for some people. The world’s largest yard sale that stretches from Alabama to North Carolina may or may not be kitchy, but I’m sure it has some “poor quality” items. One last entry - Old Alabama Town in Montgomery. Sophia and Jenna can even drive down the Hank Williams Memorial Lost Highway to get there!

Sophia Dembling 06.05.09 | 3:07 PM ET

Ooh, the world’s longest escalator. I KNEW I wanted to go to Nebraska!

I believe Jenna has written about the world’s largest yard sale for American Way magazine. I read it before I even knew her (though I knew her name), and knew I needed to know her.

Eva Holland 06.05.09 | 3:11 PM ET

A cabbage patch kid factory?! This post and thread is a road trip goldmine. Consider it bookmarked.

On a drive through Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, I came across the Oaklawn Farm Zoo, home to the ever-popular “zonkey”—yes, the beast was part zebra, part donkey.

Lucky Pierre 06.05.09 | 3:53 PM ET

Is it too soon for the Fonz statue in Milwaukee to be placed on the must-see kitsch list? It’s only about a year old.

zeladoniac 06.05.09 | 4:41 PM ET

My favorite patch o’ kitsch is the venerable Madonna Inn on Highway 101 near San Luis Obispo in California. Every room has a bizarre theme decor and you can see each one online:

My favorites are the Caveman Suite and the incredible Madonna Suite (see the Accomodations page). Don’t miss the Silver Bar. Even the bathrooms are peculiar- I hear the men’s room has a babbling brook urinal with a miniature mill-race.

Sophia Dembling 06.05.09 | 4:59 PM ET

Ohhh, I must see the Fonz statue. No, not too soon. Exactly on time.

Zach Everson 06.05.09 | 6:29 PM ET

I’m going to side with Hunter S. Thompson on this one: Vegas is where the American Dream died.

Chris 06.05.09 | 9:36 PM ET

Eva - The Cabbage Patch Kids actually pop up out of little cabbage plants in a fake garden. I went there with my grandmom when I was really young. Also, speaking of Nova Scotia, I once drove down to Peggy’s Cove just to take the exact same picture that was on the cover of my guidebook.

Ling 06.06.09 | 9:44 AM ET

Uh…. Taking a picture with the naked cowboy in Times Square? :)

Lindsey Reynolds 06.09.09 | 3:25 PM ET

I live and die for kitsch. I’ve got one for all you hard-core Elvis fans (I among them.) Yes, Graceland is a must. But have you heard about Graceland Too? Yes, in Holly Springs, MS…lives a very strange man who lives in a freakish shrine to Elvis. He even named his son Elvis Aaron.

He’s open all hours of the night, you just have to knock on his door and hope he’s there. Words fail me. Maybe this article will help…

Dan Daly 06.09.09 | 4:06 PM ET

Wow. I’m learning a lot. Makes me want to jump in my car and head out on the highway. OK, one more from South Dakota: Dinosaur Park in Rapid City. OK, two more, the Corn Palace in Mitchell.

The Home Remodeling 06.30.09 | 3:38 PM ET

I love Vegas and even with the tough economic situation I don’t mind visiting Vegas and then make a day trip to Grand Canyon.  Currently, I am currently in the midst of kitchen remodeling. As soon as I I finish this project, I am ready to take my big vacation :)

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