June 13, 2007
Collectors Amass A Treasure Trove Of Memories
When Quogue residents Donald and Elise Orenstein celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at the Inn at East Wind recently, the plan was for guests to be greeted at the door of the gala affair by Elvis and Marilyn, who'd happily pose for photos by a classic baby blue 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible.
After dinner, each guest would be treated to a Charlotte Russe, a dessert sure to conjure up memories of Brooklyn childhoods with each bite of whipped cream and sponge cake served up in a cardboard holder, just like in the old days.
Elvis, Marilyn, the classic Chevy, the Charlotte Russe desserts – all perfect accouterments for a party to celebrate the union of a couple who have spent decades searching far and wide for memorabilia.
The Orenstein's home is a pastiche of pleasures: entire rooms are dedicated to recreating moments from the past, to celebrating yesteryear with a treasure trove of memories.
Elvis. Marilyn. Baseball. Barbie. Name your pleasure, and the Orensteins are sure to have a piece of nostalgia that will send someone down memory lane.
Step into one room, an homage to the Brooklyn of Orenstein's Brownsville, Brooklyn youth. There's an actual Woolworth's cash register, from which Orenstein gifts every guest with a golden dollar coin. A working Jahn's soda fountain. A bolt from the actual Parachute Jump in Coney Island. And, to stop the hearts of carnival enthusiasts across the board, the "Gypsy Grandma" fortuneteller arcade machine featured in the film Big.
And for movie enthusiasts, there's a bonafide drive-in theater, where the couple invite guests to sit inside that same '57 Chevy, eat popcorn made fresh in their own machine, sip a homemade ice cream soda, and watch the film of their choice via international satellite on a screen that materializes as if by magic. On the walls of the room are a collection of license plates from every state that once belonged to a state trooper.
And that's not all: For the young paleontologist, out in the back yard stands the same dinosaur who made his screen debut in Jurassic Park, standing in all his 3900 pounds of glory – a favorite of Orenstein's 13-year-old grandson.
A collector for over 40 years, Orenstein has amassed over 6200 items in his quest to capture the ephemeral joys of past moments. Today, preparing for a move to North Carolina, he is in the process of parting with his beloved collection. Despite the wow factor of his wonder-years cache, Orenstein was wont to find "an heir apparent." And, with none of his children expressing interest in keeping the collection, he had to look elsewhere for a buyer.
Although he could have sold it piecemeal and made a great deal more money, Orenstein, instead, chose a Remsenburg woman who, he believes, "has soul," and shares his sensibilities. Plus, he laughed, "She gave me visiting rights."
Orenstein, a former vice president of Ballantine beer and the Boston Celtics, began collecting in a bid to recreate his childhood, haunting flea markets as he traversed the country on business.
But, he said, "the world has changed" since he began. In the past, "people threw things away," never realizing that yesterday's trash would materialize into today's treasure. The advent of eBay, he said, has made the hunt for hidden treasures that much more difficult; he still hits the yard sales every Saturday morning.
Today, he says, pro baseball players will charge $100 for an autographed ball; in the past, such signatures were granted with a smile.
Touring the Orenstein home is a lesson in legacy. In one corner is the original "Bathing Beauty," the "original porn machine," said Orenstein, for which peeping Toms would pay a penny to watch a 1920s femme fatale disrobe and smoke a cigarette. "Every item has a history."
Kept safely in a case are the rings from the cereal boxes of Orenstein's childhood – Shirley Temple, G-Man, Hopalong Cassidy, the Green Hornet. Orenstein's mother wouldn't let him have the prize until he'd finished his cereal; today, he has them all. One ring alone, he said, is valued at $12,650.
But it's not the monetary value that makes collecting so poignant, he said. Individuals will pay exorbitant prices just to recapture that fleeting piece of childhood, if only for a moment. "It's all about what you have in your memory, what's in your heart."
Heart is huge at the Orenstein home – Orenstein's wife, Elise, has a passion of her own: She collects Barbie dolls – Bratz dolls are also popular – gathering cast-offs and brand-new dolls at yard sales and then, with her mother and five volunteers, carefully refurbishes them and sends them to sick, needy and abused children worldwide.
Elise began her charity mission with dolls about five years ago – the couple pays all shipping themselves. "I've sent them to Israel, to El Salvador, to Mexico – to the South Bronx. I love doing it – to see a smile on a child's face." Even after the move, she plans to continue collecting dolls and sending them to children.
There are some items with which Orenstein cannot part: an old-fashioned "Booze Barometer" once used to check sobriety in soused bar patrons; the homemade scooter, complete with Mickey Mouse bell and Coke bottle headlights, he's saved since he was a little boy. "This was my transportation in Brooklyn."
Listening to the Orensteins, in love after 50 years, and watching their eyes light up as they survey a countertop lined with photos of their children and grandchildren, it's clear that the true collection they care about is comprised of priceless memories of their family. Sharing that joy with others, whether it be donating Barbies or inviting visitors to tour their home, is a way to give back: "We've been so blessed with healthy children, and a good life," said Elise.