Small Wonder

The Hyde Park Miniature Museum has been dredged out of mothballs, but will it find a permanent home before time runs out?

Smalley certainly never gave a damn if his collection had monetary value. The only criterion he had was this: "If he knew something about something, he would exhibit it," says Davis. "He really wanted people to be educated by what he had learned. He wanted to pass it on."

One such example is the brick. To the uninitiated, that's all it is -- a brick. Ask Davis about it, though, and the following story unfolds, as taken from his grandfather's catalog: During the period between Britain's declaration of war on Germany and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America's stance toward Britain, though officially neutral, was more like a silent partnership, with the United States arming England in its life-and-death struggle with the Nazis. The trouble was that Britain had very little to send back to America in trade. Still, cargo ships need ballast, and if there was one thing Hitler gave the British, it was lots of ballast. After American ships unloaded their grain or armaments in England, they took on cargo consisting of the pulverized remnants of London. That was how this particular brick eventually found its way to the Hyde Park Miniature Museum.

says Davis. "Well, all this new media stuff…they entertain you, but they take up extraordinary amounts of time. They want to be observed. Big-time business and all. In his day, there was always more of a chance to have a one-on-one relationship with yourself, instead of a one-on-one relationship with someone who has paid for your time."

Karl Kilian: The Miniature Museum can give even a veteran bookseller eyestrain.
Karl Kilian: The Miniature Museum can give even a veteran bookseller eyestrain.

Davis makes a point of having a relationship with himself, too. He doesn't watch TV, and he says he hasn't read a book in 20 years. His studio, a former candle factory set on the lush terrain of the banks of White Oak Bayou, looks like Smalley's attic on a larger scale, with various contraptions and gizmos scattered about higgledy-piggledy. One experiment is designed to figure out what happens to extremely high voltage when it's conducted through a vacuum. Others are part of Davis's exploration into the science of holography (none of the holograms you see on commercial products could have been produced were it not for one of his patents).

The concept of metamorphosis fascinates Davis, as it did his grandfather. One of his favorite exhibits in Smalley's collection is a homemade steam engine, cobbled together from spare parts by an anonymous tinkerer. "You think of some guy. Not only does he understand the technology, but he is looking at his own environment, and all of a sudden the use of something transforms itself into something else," marvels Davis. "He has a rifle, and all of a sudden it's just a steel tube. He needs a piston, let's go. It's a miraculous transformation that happens…the thrill of discovery…"

Long before Davis was born, Smalley invented a musical instrument -- the "little jo" -- that he played live on KTRH. It was a flat mandolin with only four strings, an alarm-clock bell and a mounted harmonica. Many years later, a young Davis, who then knew nothing of the little jo, invented his own odd stringed instrument to fulfill an assignment for a class at the Museum of Fine Arts. "The problem was this: A plus B equals C. In other words, we had to take one element and add it to another and have it come out neither A nor B," he says. A relative had given him a beautiful brass snare drum with nymphs chasing each other all around it. Davis took the neck off his Stratocaster and attached it to the drum, and the "daddy banjo" was born.

Davis hasn't performed a traditional gig in about 20 years. He got his start playing as the male half of the Frank and Kay duo, from which Kay later emerged as 1980s country hitmaker K.T. Oslin. Davis played the daddy banjo solo in Houston clubs and on the road for another couple of decades, but gave up playing in public abruptly when an Anderson Fair patron, having never seen Davis before, told him he was "pretty good" and that he "might be able to make a living playing music."

Today, the only gigs Davis plays are hit-and-run affairs. Parked next to a vintage Volvo in front of his studio is an old ice cream van that Davis has rigged up with curtains and blue Christmas lights. When it's running, he likes to load up the daddy banjo and perform impromptu concerts in his predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. "They come up and offer pennies and dimes, but I just smile and shake my head," Davis says. "I don't say a word. When I'm done, I pull the curtain in front of me and go up front and drive off."

Davis's studio seems as though it's been crammed full of all of his scientific, artistic and musical odds and ends for years, but it hasn't. Aside from a few older items like the daddy banjo, the stuff in the studio now is pretty much the stuff he's acquired since June 10 of last year, when most of his life was swept into the bayou by Tropical Storm Allison. Davis lost all of his artwork, his furniture, his papers, everything. "I did find some of my art down on Main Street," Davis says. "But why pick it up? It was all just ruined."

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