Art

THIS LITTLE PHARAOH CAME TO MARKET

Rita Christopher December 18 1978
Art

THIS LITTLE PHARAOH CAME TO MARKET

Rita Christopher December 18 1978

THIS LITTLE PHARAOH CAME TO MARKET

Art

Rita Christopher

For years the best bet for an Egyptian in New York was to hide behind a pastrami sandwich and pray. Now, at long last, it is time to get out from behind the rye bread and mustard. President Anwar Sadat, of course, has had a notable hand in changing the climate, but much of the credit for the Egyptian fever now sweeping the continent with the devastating rapacity that government scientists once predicted for swine flu goes to a 3,000-year-old ambassador—King Tut. “The boy king, he’s doing a job no politician could possibly do,” exults Thomas Hoving, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose efforts were instrumental in bringing the spectacular Tutankhamun exhibit to the United States and Canada. Since its premiere at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the exhibit has

drawn over 5Vfc million people—in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Seattle—and now the blasé Big Apple finds itself in the throes of Tutmania. After a four-month New York stand that begins Dec. 20, the exhibit will '’ross the country to San Francisco, then end its conquest of North America next November at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Tut experience begins far before eager viewers actually see the 55 treasures from Tut’s tomb, unearthed in 1922 by British archeologist Howard Carter and his patron, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. Tutmaniacs have been nearly mummified themselves after waiting in line as long as eight hours to get into the show. “If I’d known the line just to see him, I’d have taken all my money and bought me a museum,” sings comedian Steve Martin, who is currently making the charts with a nutty ditty called King Tut.

Some, who couldn’t take the wait, tried more imaginative ploys to cut the line. Museum directors have stopped counting the number of people who demanded special admission because they fancied themselves Tut look-alikes. In Los Angeles the farther shores of lunacy extended to the woman, in ancient mufti, who plopped sphinxlike on the museum steps and claimed she was the reincarnation of Tut’s mother. Seattle topped that with a man who claimed to be a reincarnation of the boy king himself.

For the living dead as well as ordinary mortals, the Metropolitan used a computerized ticket agency to distribute advance reservations that assigned their lucky possessors not only a date but a precise hour to view the exhibit. Even Ticketron, the agency which handles major sporting events and Broadway shows, had never seen anything like the demand for Tut tickets.

Over one million were sold in just five days.

To accommodate all ticket holders, plus museum members and special groups (an estimated 1.3 million people in all), the museum will extend its weekly operating hours from 46 to 82, staying open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The exhibit itself will be installed on a balcony overlooking another stellar Egyptian attraction, the Temple of Dendur. Four hundred new employees and 200 volunteers have been added to the Met’s staff. Three restaurants, one of them refurbished especially for Tut, will serve everything from fast food to full-course dinners. No need to worry about swooning from the sight of all the gold or the press of the crowds—there will be a nurse and a paramedic team on duty at all times. (The Art Gallery of Ontario is already bracing itself for next November. Floors have to be cut up and specially covered

to stand the wear of the expected million feet; fire and traffic regulations for the area determined; security, new personnel and volunteers organized; and tickets sold for each hour of the twomonth exhibit—requests have already come from as far away as Texas.)

ven those who fail to get into the exhibition itself should not despair. The Met has enough Tut reproductions to go around, everything from notepaper and patterned scarves to painstakingly crafted jewelry. There are more than 250 items in all: the cheapest, a coloring book at $2.50, the most expensive, a statue of the king in 18-karat gold at $2,000. Sales at the museums that have housed the show have already produced $12 million but, unlike the retail sharpies, none of the institutions will reap a profit. All of the funds will be used to renovate the collection’s permanent home, the Cairo Museum. Justly proud of its reproductions, Met

staffers are more than a little appalled at the proliferation of Tut knock-offs. “We are providing a tasteful selection of merchandise,” huffs one, “not a Halloween show.” But a mere two blocks from the museum, the costume party has already begun—a stationery store is selling cardboard Tutankhamun masks.

For Egyptologists unfazed by commercialism, the potpourri seems endless. One can literally live with Tut— sleep in Tut sheets, rub down with Tut towels, eat from Tut china and decorate with Tut wallpaper and furniture, from folding stools to a $3,600 chair inspired by one of the thrones entombed with the boy king. “Since Tut was coming, I thought we might as well snag some business. Now it’s mushrooming so much that I hope we can keep up with it,” says the regal seat’s designer, fortuitously named Ptolemy. His line also includes royally priced Tut tables and for the down-scale shopper, a pillow em-

broidered with the famous Tut death mask in solid gold thread—a steal at $300. “Companies pay millions for a distinctive logo and that death mask gets more publicity than the best trademarks,” laughs Hoving, whose own contribution to the craze is a newly published book, Tutankhamun: The Untold Story (see Maclean’s, Nov. 6). So, quite naturally, the enterprising are using the death mask as a marketing device. Michter’s, a small Pennsylvania distillery, has fashioned a Tut decanter, the better to sell its sour mash. “Our business has trebled since we introduced Tut,” says general manager Charles Romito. “We have gone from being a small East Coast distillery to distributing in 44 states.” On to a good thing, Romito plans another Egyptian-inspired decanter next year. The death mask appears on everything from tote bags to T-shirts, with Seattle earning highest honors for inventive display. A far-seeing entrepreneur came up with the best thing since Farrah FawcettMajors, a T-shirt emblazoned with the immortal slogan, “Keep Your Hands Off My Tuts.”

While details of Tut’s life remain sketchy, Egyptian fever is a well documented phenomenon. It first struck in France after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798. Parisian ladies loaded

themselves with Pharaonic-inspired baubles and new kingdom design translated itself into Empire furniture. After the discovery of the tomb, Carter and Carnarvon were beseiged by worldwide demands for commercial licensing agreements. Discovery of an ancient sandal led to dozens of requests to produce a modern facsimile. In New York, women wrapped themselves in mummy-style togas until a local physician cautioned that the fashion severely constricted breathing. A jazzman with a flair for words composed a number just for the occasion, If You Sheik on Your Mama, Your Mama’s Gonna Sheba on You. And, more significantly, the angular lines and vivid colors of Egyptian art inspired the Art Deco craze.

The media hype that may well be this generation’s most lasting contribution to posterity has pushed Tutmania to a new extreme. Camp followers moving from city to city with the exhibit hawk everything from vibrating Tut pillows to small plastic pyramids guaranteed to enhance the possessor’s inner energy. A New Orleans artist produced a Tut sleeping bag, shaped and decorated like a mummy. Near the Seattle Museum, an enterprising Mexican restaurant sold Tut tacos, a meal fit for a king. For those who didn’t want a Tutankhamun banquet to

be accompanied by Montezuma’s revenge, a local hotel provided a more sedate Egyptian repast. For that special night in Ancient Egypt, men can sport Tut ties and ladies have their choice of Tut makeup, a fetching hairstyle called the Tut Bols, and even coordinating Essence of the Blue Nile perfume. Stay-athomes are not forgotten in the marketing blitz. Evenings can be spent putting together a Tut puzzle, dealing Tutembossed cards or playing senet, an ancient Egyptian game resembling backgammon, knowingly marketed as “The Game that King Tut Played.” In Manhattan, to boost a local tourism campaign as well as the city’s self-image, jewellers have produced a pendant that spells “I Love New York” in hieroglyphics. A Brooklyn department store is offering free Tut seminars, with coffee and danish for those who have to nourish the body as well as the mind.

So far, no one in the Tut promotional sweepstakes has been in the least scared off by the legendary curse of the pharaohs. The ghost of Boris Karloff, swathed to the neck in bandages, gliding through subterranean passages, can’t hold a flickering candle to a mobilized Madison Avenue. “If this is the curse,” crowed one jubilant Manhattan merchant, “bring on the double whammy.”^