The Magic of History: Denny Daniel and his Museum of Interesting Things

The Magic of History: Denny Daniel and his Museum of Interesting Things

It’s Friday night. I’m attending a virtual event, like so many of us do now. On my screen is a man decked out in a Gent hat, red neck scarf, and a Napoleonic-style jacket with brass buttons running down either side. There’s a necklace under the scarf, a piece of the transatlantic telegraph cable that Denny always wears. 

“Hey Laura, how are you doing?” Denny says warmly, smiling. We met a few days prior when I interviewed him by phone but he already greets me like an old friend. He is chatting with us on the screen and those at the event in person with ease. Soon he is telling us the story of how the CIA tried to confiscate a decommissioned ciphering cell phone he owns from 1991. I have no idea how the conversation got here, but I am laughing. 

After, Denny pulls out a vintage megaphone, “Museum” written down the side. His voice is bursting with the energy of a circus ringmaster, “Hear ye, hear ye, sit upon your sofas. Welcome to the Secret Speakeasy, Doomsday.” He prepares us for the amazing sights we’re about to see—radioactive golf balls, NASA reports, PSA’s on how to duck and cover if the atom bomb drops, and more from his collection of Cold War and Space Race artifacts. 

Denny Daniel has been the curator of the Museum of Interesting Things for over a decade. He spends his days traveling to schools and libraries with his collection of antiques, films, and inventions. Once a week, he spends his night running a benefit for the museum, where he showcases a themed selection of vintage films and artifacts, that he calls the Secret Speakeasy. “It’s not prohibition anymore,” he tells us, “so we’re not hiding from the cops, we’re hiding from my parents.” Somehow between all of that, he finds time to catalog thousands of artifacts, schedule shows, and acquire even more items for the collection. Denny lives and breathes history, bringing its stories to life for others. 

Like his collection, Denny’s own story reaches far and wide. Both his mother and father were born in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in what is now Azerbaijan and Georgia respectively, where their families faced persecution. Their lives kept intersecting, from living in the same apartment building when they were young to his father being part of the group that smuggled his mother (who was orphaned as a child), and countless other Jews, to Israel. When his father later fled to Israel and joined the military he met his future wife again when he was injured and she worked at the army hospital. They married and had Denny’s brother. Eventually, they moved to Brazil in search of better opportunities. His father started a shoe design business that became widely successful, producing over 100,000 shoes per season. Denny’s sister was born in Brazil. But still, they remained restless. Once again they left behind everything and moved to America, settling in New York City where Denny was born. 

Denny grew up in Forest Hills in Queens, but his home encompassed all the places in his family’s history. “My parents speak nine languages. Growing up in New York with my family’s stories makes you appreciate everything,” he comments, “and keeps you very open-minded.” 

As a child, Denny loved patterns in everything from music to household items. He built cities in the basement out of cardboard tubes, batteries, and empty cable spools. By nine years old he was recording his own music. “One day, there was a guy selling stuff around the corner,” he remembers. His family’s neighborhood had some affluent residents. He spent winters shoveling snow for people like Donald Trump’s mother (yes Donald lived there at the time too). Garage sales had some rare and strange things. At one of these sales, Denny found a lunchbox-sized electric Victrola. The old but beautiful record player called to him like a siren’s song. “The guy was telling us the whole story about how he got it and how much it meant to him,” he recalls, “so I was thinking ‘Oh, great, this guy’s going to name a high price.’ Then he looked at me and said ‘It looks like you really love it.’ He sold it to me for a dollar.” That Victrola was Denny’s first antique.

“All these items have three things,” Denny explains to me on the phone. “First, the energy of the maker, all the work and love that went into making the thing. Second, the positive energy of the people that have used it over time. And third, our love for it. We make new experiences by learning about these items.”

I imagine the man at the garage sale must have seen the spark that the old machine lit up in Denny’s eyes that remains today as he speaks at this week’s Secret Speakeasy, explaining the different parts of a family radiation measurement kit. “This dosimeter can fit in your pocket,” he says, holding up a pen-shaped device. “Imagine what it was like, living in a world where you needed to carry a radiation detector in your pocket.” Listening to Denny, I had no problems imagining.

While Denny continued collecting antiques, his adolescence was colored with a variety of interests. By 13, he wrote up to six songs a week and played guitar in a Beatles tribute band, Aberdean. By 16, the band had played for about 2000 people at Bklyn Tech H.S., and Bklyn College but the band folded. His later band Sofia Run released 2 albums and performed at CBGS’s and Limelight. He turned his focus to academics, attending classes at five different colleges during high school. His H.S. English teacher Abbey (who later founded History Channel) inspired his lifelong love of Charles Dickens, literature, and history. After graduating, Denny attended NYU for literature, history, and international politics/economics. His professors opened more literary doors for him and he spent many days at Old St. Mark’s Books in the East Village. By the time he left NYU, he had 200 antique books and the lessons from his mentors, Hanifan and Zaritzsky. “They all taught me curiosity, to be brave and aspire to do what I love and be confident,” he says.

After college, Denny explored a long list of careers: real estate, shoe design, videography, graphic design. He freelanced for MTV and filmed at Radio City Music Hall, but was never satisfied. “You know you only need two things to start a business,” he tells me, “a passion for something and bad bosses.” He kept running into terrible clients and rude bosses for work and he felt wasn’t leaving a mark on society. “I truly believe in that saying, ‘the only thing you leave behind is the change you make in people.’” 

Throughout his career, Denny always relished throwing birthday parties for friends in his large apartment crammed with antiques and entertaining the crowd with the stories of his collection. One day he decided to take his passion for storytelling and history to his old elementary school by bringing his antiques to the classroom. “The kids were so excited,” he remembers from his first show. “They absolutely loved touching the artifacts.” The Museum of Interesting Things was born. In his interactive and traveling museum, Denny teaches kids about the origins of today’s technology and ideas by demonstrating history right in front of them. They not only learn how Edison’s Cylinder Phonograph led to their iPods, but they can touch the wax cylinders it played and hear the crackling music come out of the metal horn.

Over time, he acquired more artifacts and started recruiting volunteers. His Museum of Interesting Things now has thousands of artifacts, like telegrapher keyers, the first cell phone, and a mutoscope. He owns a ballot from the election of Abraham Lincoln and vintage films from the Lumiere Brothers who invented the movie projector. Denny takes his show to every kind of audience—schools, libraries, senior centers, historical tours, steampunk festivals, Comic Cons, recurring segments on news stations like NY1 news, two guest appearances on Pawn Stars. He has shown items in his collection to celebrities like Adam Savage, Mel Brooks, and Stan Lee.

There is nothing that makes him happier than sharing the magic of these antiques, and nothing stops Denny from spreading his positive message of curiosity and tinkering. While working at The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, he fell and broke four ribs. Only after working the rest of his eight-hour day, did he get an X-Ray and take it to a doctor. The doctor turned to him and said, “You need emergency surgery or you’re not going to make it.” He refused—he had a show coming soon after all at Coney Island—and left to call his parents, who promptly told him to go back. So Denny went back. “As I waited, I pulled some antique medical equipment out of my bag. I said ‘here doc, I got your supplies’ and gave him tools from the 1800s.” The surgeon nearly died from laughter himself. Afterward, he requested a piece of tubing from the surgery. “I asked them not to wash it. It’s better with the blood in it,” he says. He went on to give his show at Coney Island with four broken ribs but his assistants had to hold the antiques.

“The purpose of the museum is not the items,” Denny explains. “If you come out of it curious, positive, and smiling, that’s what it’s about. If you lecture people, they put up a wall, but give them a wax cylinder, they become a kid again. Seniors will tell me stories of when they used these inventions in their lives. I’m always half-listening to the story, half-listening to how excited they are.” 

“My family thinks what I do is crazy, but they love me to death,” Denny goes on. “My brother once asked ‘What career do you have after your first show, when everyone breaks everything?’” No kids have ever damaged an antique. Once he booked a show at a youth detention center but they asked to cancel due to lack of security. He insisted on doing the show with all 35 kids. “They’ll kill you,” his contact at the facility said. “I did the show, and the kids loved it,” Denny says. “One girl even came up to me after I’d packed up and handed me a wax Edison cylinder and said ‘You forgot this.’ I would trust every kid I’ve taught to run the country.” 

Like many event organizations, the 2020 pandemic made it challenging for the museum to continue its educational mission when large gatherings stopped. “It’s very scary to continue investing and not know what the future is” Denny admits, “but I’m very much a survivor like my parents. I’ll always land on my feet.” He even found some advantages in this virtual world. The Secret Speakeasies have gone from monthly parties to weekly online and in-person shows. At school events, all of the students can instantly see the artifacts up close through their screens. Four broken ribs couldn’t stop him, so a virus won’t stop him now. Not even the end of Denny will mean the end of the museum—that’s not one of his jokes.

“I’m afraid of a landlord throwing all the artifacts out so I decided to buy a location for the museum and own it,” he explains. After Denny is gone—which is hopefully a long way off—he will leave the Museum of Interesting Things to the state and people of New York because as he says, “I love New York, I love my town, I love my country.” He tells me of how during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, residents reclaimed vacant lots by throwing “seed bombs” over fences and physically occupying the spaces. Today the public enjoys places like Liz Christy Garden, El Jardín del Paraíso, and La Petite Versailles because New Yorkers forced authorities to recognize these spaces as belonging to the people. “When you give something to the people of New York, they don’t give it up.”

“I want it to be like Central Park. The people should feel a part of it, get to bring in new stuff. No one will ever be barred entry—the poor, the disabled, convicts,” Denny continues. “No matter what I do, seniors, kids, millennials, every kind of person shows up at the Secret Speakeasies and everyone talks to each other. The common denominator is just really good people.”

For now, Denny plans on continuing to inspire kids and adults to be curious about the world. Back at the Doomsday Speakeasy, we are about to watch the atom bomb test footage, the iconic mushroom of ash and radiation. But first, he pulls out a faded red conical hunk of metal and plastic—the warhead of a B57 thermonuclear weapon. He looks at me, grinning almost gleefully. “Now you can say my show is the bomb!” I find myself smiling and laughing too. 

Now I can say The Museum of Interesting Things, The Secret Speakeasy, and most of all Denny Daniel are indeed the bomb. 

To find out more about the Museum of Interesting things visit www.museumofinterestingthings.org. Or contact Denny Daniel for details at (212)-274-8757 (no text) and dennydanielx@gmail.com.