Pedro Rodriguez, 56, reserves an entire room in his home to display his 500 pieces of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia alongside the swords, eagles and flags of his Americana collection.  Daily Times Herald photos by Elyssa Cherney 
Pedro Rodriguez, 56, reserves an entire room in his home to display his 500 pieces of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia alongside the swords, eagles and flags of his Americana collection.  Daily Times Herald photos by Elyssa Cherney

Monday, August 13, 2012

DENISON — Tucked away in a corner of this modest, one-story house is a room with brilliant red walls that match the shade of lipstick worn by a beautiful woman — the single, elongated face that populates them.

She appears over and over again in posters, painted plates and porcelain dolls.

It’s where Pedro Rodriguez, a full-time carpenter who works occasional security-guard gigs, goes to get away from it all. Surrounded by the sea of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia he’s acquired over the past 25 years, the Denison city councilman can relax. She reminds him, even on the most trying days, of the world’s beauty.

“I think happiness depends on something attainable, something you can see, something you spend time with admiring that you can distract yourself from different pressures of life,” the 56-year-old said.  

Rodriguez’s 500-piece collection features a music record by Monroe that was shipped from Norway, a set of Swiss army knives that bear her picture, more than 400 trading cards, calendars, purses and even dice — really anything he can find for cheap.

He covers his signature piece — a naked portrait of the curvaceous blonde that he haggled for $300 in Nebraska — with a sheet of cloth to keep the room appropriate for all ages.  

But it’s not a shrine. On the spectrum of Marilyn mania, Rodriguez says his collection is moderate, at best. And he wants to keep it that way.

“I don’t ever want to reach the fanatic point where I would be consumed by her collection,” he said.

Lure at First Sight

Rodriguez’s 7-year-old eyes first laid sight on Monroe after she already died.

He watched through glass windows of an electronics store as television screens flashed a grainy, black-and-white clip of her singing “Happy Birthday” to former U.S. President John. F Kennedy. It was right around the time when Monroe, an American actress and singer and sex symbol, overdosed on drugs at age 36.

Since then, Rodriguez has been captivated, but like scores of others who fell under Monroe’s spell, he can’t pinpoint exactly what drew him in.

If he had to guess, he would say it’s her symmetry.

“It’s unexplainable for me. … The shape of her eyes, her mouth…a blunt triangle in her face coupled with the rest of her features,” he stumbled over his words.

Rodriguez likened his collection to more common hobbies like gardening and camping or others that tap into natural beauty. Her face creates that same pleasing aesthetic effect, just like flowers do, he said.

Collecting on a Budget

Over time, Rodriguez’s fascination with Monroe grew into a full-fledged hobby and a collection that engulfs an entire room in his Denison home.  

As a teenager, he frequented carnivals just to see posters of her face, and in college he began actively buying up pictures, trading cards and calendars to pad his fascination in a material way.

Now he peruses online auction websites like eBay for deals and stakes out yard sales for anything Marilyn-related. After more than 25 years, he’s acquired about 400 trading cards — and needs just about a dozen more to complete the set — and about 100 framed photographs that line the walls of the room.

The average item runs about $15, and the majority cost no more than $50, he said. Some knickknacks like lighters and mirrors don’t burn the pocketbook but others — like the three 12-inch porcelain dolls he got for $300 — are worth digging deeper for.

But there is one item his display lacks: one that belonged to Monroe herself.

A few years back he spotted one of her bedazzled lipstick bags online, but the price was too high. Her belongings fly off the electronic shelves like hotcakes, snatched up by collectors with more money to spare. A lock of her hair, Rodriguez recalled, went for several thousand dollars.

That is simply out of Rodriguez’s budget though. For more expensive items, he barters. And when that fails, he walks away.

Superficial Admiration

Rodriguez’s wife Gloria lightheartedly introduces him as a dad who is in love with a dead woman, but his fascination runs only skin-deep, he said.

He’s made no effort to learn about Monroe on more than a superficial level, other than speculating about her death, which he insists was a murder ordered and covered up by Hugh Hefner, the founder and publisher of Playboy magazine.

Rodriguez leisurely leafs through the pages of historical books in his collection and wants to see the 2011 feature film “My Week With Marilyn” but feels no urgency to watch it yet.

Plus, Monroe shares that brilliantly red room with another one of Rodriguez’s collection. Brass eagles, silver swords and star-spangled flags mingle with Monroe’s looks in a space that boasts Americana through a fitting combination of freedom, patriotism and the image of American beauty.  

After all, Monroe is just one of many leading ladies in Rodriguez’s life, and the others are alive: a wife, three daughters, and a granddaughter.

His family supports his hobby, but he’s knows not to push it to extremes. Limiting his fascination to her looks is one way he keeps his interest under control so he can appreciate what he’s got in the present, like his nearly 2-year-old granddaughter. Soon, her photographs may encroach on Monroe’s framed household reign and eventually replace her, he said.

Still, Rodriguez will always have a place for Monroe in his heart even if the space for her carved out in his house shrinks.

“To this day, I still think she was the standard of beauty,” he said.

For now, Rodriguez still takes refuge in that bright red room, a place where one woman’s beauty and memory live on 50 years since her death.