Collecting rockets, robots, and cosmic gadgets
Photos by Douglas Foulke
John Kleeman and his son, Peter, are collectors. They have been collecting Space Age cultural artifacts for 25 years: rockets, flying saucers, life-size robots, toys, amusement-park rides, and much more. They view their collection as a vehicle for telling the story of man’s quest into outer space. Blastoff was in 1988, when John took Peter on a road trip to the Brimfield flea market in south-central Massachusetts. They decided to look for a space toy and came home with a little, red ray gun—a 1936 Wyandotte—and that launched the start of an astronomical collection.
At a picturesque farm in Litchfield, an enormous dairy barn houses thousands of the Kleemans’s treasures. Mr. Bolts, a larger than life-size robot, stands guard over the mothership of this collection—a 40-foot rocket replica of Terra IV, a battleship cruiser from the 1950s television series, “Space Patrol.” The rocket once housed a theater that had seating for 40 children to watch films of rocket liftoffs, all while it shook and rumbled. The Kleemans found the replica in Arizona, and after jettisoning rats, mice, and rattlesnakes, they had it trucked back to Connecticut. It now hovers next to a Douglas D-558-2 Sky Rocket, one of only four made. The Sky Rocket was the first aircraft to fly at over twice the speed of sound, although the Kleemans’s rocket never left the ground; it was used for testing. Rounding out the fleet is a flying saucer that has seating for at least four Earthlings. Every acquisition has an interesting story, and the Kleemans’s search includes uncovering as much information as they can about each discovery.
While John grew up with Buck Rogers, and Peter during the “Star Wars” era and the beginning of the Space Shuttle, the Space Age was a time when everyone began to imagine traveling in outer space, a time when Americans were personally engaged in the exploration of space—and that is the dream John and Peter have tried to preserve. The Space Age influenced design in every aspect of American culture, from architecture and household products to TV shows like “The Jetsons,” “Lost in Space,” and “Star Trek.”
TVs, toasters, salon hair-dryers that cocooned woman’s heads like space helmets—everything had fins or wings. And the Kleemans have it all, including a vast collection of photography that captures the nation’s fascination with outer space.
“As the collection grew, we gained more perspective and a deeper interpretation of it,” says Peter. “Collectable products, their design influenced by this era—like teapots shaped liked flying saucers—became of less interest, and folk-art space creations became more of a focus.”
“We started thinking of the collection as the Space Age Museum,” John adds. “And we never would have been able to do all this without my wife, Veronica. She is ground control. It energizes us to feel the importance of this and to experience the process of discovery and seeing the collection come together.”
The Kleemans are obviously passionate about their collection, a collection that starts with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and evolves into the age of television with Captain Video and Tom Corbett. The journey continues with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space missions of the ’60s and ’70s when dreams of space travel became reality, culminating with man’s voyages to the moon. The Kleemans have worked hard to make their collection representative of all those eras.
“It’s amazing that someone took a very popular comic strip starring Buck Rogers and created toys so children could actually become their hero,” says John. In 1934 when Macy’s opened its doors to sell the Buck Rogers XZ-31 rocket pistol, over 2,000 parents and children were waiting to buy it in a line three blocks long. Though Macy’s was not exactly the “final frontier,” the Space Age had well and truly arrived for American households.
In what little spare time he has between his day job and the Kleemans’s so-called “Space Age Museum,” Peter has been hitting the road to photograph Space Age roadside memorabilia in America—imaginative works of signage that were common during the time but are now fading. “We feel a sense of duty to the collection and want to share it with others,” he says. The Kleemans’ mission is to present parts of the collection as a traveling exhibition and eventually to find a permanent home in order to preserve the cultural history of the Space Age. To facilitate this, they need to secure sponsorship and funding. To see the collection online and for more information, visit spaceagemuseum.com.