The Valley Relics Museum Was Expanding—Then COVID-19 Struck

The ”little museum with a big mission” is among the indie institutions figuring out how to withstand temporary closure

Tommy Gelinas, founder of the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, was in the middle of expanding the displays at his repository of San Fernando Valley history when he had to close due to the coronavirus. New exhibits on Southern California car clubs, BMX Bikes, and vintage maps are on hold for the foreseeable future as the museum has been navigating the last two weeks without the usual stream of visitors that helps keep the lights on at the 10,000 square foot space filled with neon signs, video games, and artifacts from the last century of L.A. history.

Admission revenues, gift shop sales, and special event rentals are the main source of income for the non-profit, which is cautiously optimistic, but hoping for support from friends and fans as they gird for an extended closure. “We do have a couple bucks in the bank,” Gelinas says. “And we do have the online store. But whoever can send a couple of dollars, or a couple of million, would be great.”

The museum shop is filled with the expected T-shirts and coffee mugs, but these advertise 1970s and ’80s teen hangout like Malibu Grand Prix, Licorice Pizza, Pup ‘n Taco, and the Palomino, a long-gone landmark of country music in North Hollywood. The museum brought the club back for one night in 2018 with a fundraiser concert at the venue’s original location on Lankershim Boulevard. Artifacts from the collection, including the club’s original neon sign and a vintage Cadillac customized by “rodeo tailor” Nudie Cohn were on display, helping to transport visitors to the past.

It’s one of several small to midsize museums figuring out how to navigate the COVID-19 shutdown; others include Heritage Square in Montecito Heights and the Underground Museum in Arlington Heights.

The museum hopes to bring back their special events and tours in the next month or two, but in the meantime they are working on special at-home experiences utilizing the museum’s collections and adding more unique artifacts to the museum store including a line of miniature neon signs that once lined the streets of the valley. “We have versions of Circus Liquor and the Van Nuys Drive-In that are about 18-inches tall. They’re like treasures,” Gelinas says. “They really bring people back to places that are gone forever.”

The Valley Relics museum can dip into its savings to weather the next few weeks, but hopes to be back soon and appreciates the new members who have signed up during the closure.

“I don’t ever want to have that shadow of anything negative, like, ‘If you don’t give us money, we wont be here tomorrow,’” says Gelinas. “We have a lot of support and if this little museum with a big mission can continue doing what we love doing, then I’m good with that.”

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