Former actor Keith Holt had to fight the locals to keep his museum. (All photos: Dave Seminara)
By Dave Seminara
There is one place in the world where the Spice Girls jam with Spinal Tap, and Elvis and Barbie lie in a manger, along with Santa Claus.
Welcome to Keith Holt’s strangely compelling Apple Valley Hillbilly Gardens and Toyland roadside tourist attraction outside Paducah, Kentucky.
The place is an homage to hillbilly pop culture where visitors can see bizarre exhibits like “Things Angelina Jolie Touched,” and a “Hillbilly Day Care Center,” complete with barbed wire.
Holt, 52 and a Kentucky native, is as much a part of the attraction as his eclectic collection. He told us he spent more than 20 years chasing his dream of becoming an actor in Hollywood. If you ask him, or even if you don’t, he’ll tell you that his career highlight was a speaking part on “General Hospital” during its heyday.
The hillbilly museum includes thousands of vintage toys collected around Los Angeles.
“I was an ugly waiter who served a sandwich,” he told me. “My line was, ‘Here’s your sandwich, sir.’”
When his mother died in 2006, it seemed like the right time to give up his Hollywood dream and return to the family home he inherited outside Paducah to open a backyard museum exhibiting the thousands of vintage toys he’d been collecting and storing in lockers around Los Angeles.
“No one expected me to go back to Kentucky,” he said, standing inside a small outbuilding next to his home that was once his grandfather Oral Wallace’s 4-seat restaurant, ciderhouse, general store, and barbershop—now a museum filled floor to ceiling with antiques and memorabilia from Holt’s acting career. “I was living the Hollywood dream, hanging out with A-list celebrities. But I wanted to open a toy fantasyland to help people relive their childhoods. That was the initial vision.”
But Holt’s neighbors in this conservative community didn’t care for his host of peculiar displays in the yard or his shoulder length hair.
“Everyone thought I was a meth dealer,” he says.
Is this the definition of trailer park trash?
Holt says he was shot at, had his phone tapped and was investigated by a host of government agencies that was spurred on, he says, by vindictive neighbors. The chilly welcome back to Kentucky inspired him to antagonize his neighbors with hand-painted signs along the road (“Everybody Hurts—Gossip,” “Don’t Dream It—Conform,” and more).
After a protracted court battle with local authorities, Holt says he agreed to buy an entertainment license to legitimize his unusual tourist attraction and made peace with most of his neighbors, who have gotten used to him.
Holt’s roadside attraction has three components: a small museum with mementos from his acting days, like the Angelina Jolie exhibit and his grandfather’s Gulf gas station and original homestead; the Toyland vintage toy and trains museum; and Hillbilly Gardens, Holt’s eccentric collection of Hillbilly folk art scattered around the property.
Lawn furniture and bikes grow on trees here.
Holt led us outside and pointed at a trailer in the yard.
“Most of the toys are still in there,” he said, “My friends in L.A. who said they were going to invest bailed out. I’ve only got 20 percent of my collection on display.”
Though just one small room, Toyland is sensory overload. There are hundreds, perhaps more than 1,000 vintage toys and dolls artfully displayed, floor to ceiling, with a host of sleek vintage toy trains circling the room. Dolls depicting likenesses of pop culture icons like the Spice Girls and Frank Sinatra round out the surreal scene.
Holt showed us around Hillbilly Gardens, stopping to explain the puns behind each of his displays, which include a hillbilly lawnmower, a hillbilly cemetery, hillbilly shower, hillbilly retirement home, and so on. I asked him about a ratty old full-size sofa and recliner, with piles of leaves on them nailed midway up a set of tall oak trees.
The Santa-Elvis-Barbie manger.
“This is my throwaway society woods,” he said. “The stuff most people throw away, I nail it to a tree.”
There was a bizarre, mad genius charm to the displays, but Holt made it clear that he doesn’t take himself very seriously.
“I had some artists in Paducah tell me this stuff was folk art and I was like, OK, if you say so,” he said.
Surveying his massive collection of assorted collectibles, much of it strewn about the yard, I asked Holt if he was a hoarder.
An old-fashioned saloon and hotel.
“I consider myself a collector, not a hoarder,” he said. “I collect so others can enjoy this stuff, but maybe that’s my way of covering up hoarding. I guess I do have a hard time throwing things away.”
Two hours into our visit, I got the sense that Holt was in no hurry for us to leave. After showing us around, he circled back to the small museum and told us about his grandfather, a traveling musician who tried to settle down here, where he lived and operated a variety of businesses from 1928 until he died of a heart attack in 1964.
His dream now is to find a space to display his complete collection, but he said he has no idea how to make that happen, at least for now.
His only job is to lead tours and, according to dozens of reviews on Trip Advisor, he spends hours with each guest, even though there is no admission fee. The reviews are nearly all glowing, save for a handful of 1 star reviews left by angry neighbors.
“People trashed us for homeschooling our kids and living off of people’s donations,” he said, clearly still agitated. “They weren’t reviewing the place as a tourist attraction”
But Holt says his roadside attraction has kept him in Kentucky. He said that he missed L.A. but couldn’t afford to go back, and in some ways he’s walking in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“My grandfather bought this place and kind of got stuck here,” he said. “He couldn’t get out. Now the same thing has happened to me.”
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