It Started with One

Min Kang

The general public might not be ready for Candace Frazee. She spends a lot of time defending her passion and her one-of-a-kind collection against people who are quick to judge. Candace Frazee and her husband, Steve Lubanski, collect bunnies. A lot of bunnies. Enough to produce a “bunny museum” with the world’s largest collection of bunny-themed items. They’re listed in the Guinness World Records. And they’re a quick hop away in Pasadena.

It’s easy to picture Frazee as a senior citizen who just has way too much free time. She’s not like that at all. With flaxen curls teased high and ruby red lips and suit worn at public events, Frazee exudes strength and bold confidence, perfect for the cast of 80’s show Designing Women. The energy one might expect her to pour into hosting charity events or coveting the latest Italian handbag has gone instead into her idiosyncratic calling. First and foremost is the bunny collection.

Which begs the question “Why?” The complicated answer is that it is a love story, a visual, tactile demonstration of the love shared between Frazee and her husband Steve Lubanski.

Maybe if she hadn’t nicknamed him “Honey Bunny” this wouldn’t have happened. It started with a white plush rabbit, polka-dotted pink ears and bow holding a heart inscribed “I love you this much,” which “Honey Bunny” gave Frazee on Valentine’s Day. That Easter, she gave him a white porcelain rabbit. “And before you know it, we are giving each other a bunny every day as a love token,” says Frazee.

The first gifts – surrounded by relics from their wedding, pictures of the two together and plush bunnies smartly dressed in tux and veil – bear a shrine-like quality that invites veneration.

And that is just the beginning. There are piles of bunnies everywhere. A wunderkammern of chocolate Easter bunnies, musical boxes, a United Nations assortment of bunnies, a bunny made out of cow dung, and chai tea bottles labeled with bunnies defy the logical limits of what may be endorsed by the furry critter.

The Bunny Museum is not really a “museum,” it is a collection. And this enormous, staggering collection is not housed in a public building, but in their home. They live here, with all the bunnies, their lives occasionally punctuated by visits from the curious. Visitors should expect to hear the spray of water as Frazee rinses the dishes in the sink, or the murmur of voices as Lubanski watches the television in the room nearly sound-proofed by plush bunnies, appropriately named “the warren.”

Space is an issue in the 1,500 sq. ft. Spanish stucco home, but invasion of privacy is not. It is open year-round, by appointment. There is a philosophy behind allowing strangers to come to their house. On their website, it states that they “generously share their private collection to visitors because they believe that is what one should do.” As if in moral obligation, Lubanski says, “We think people should share and shouldn’t be greedy. There are Van Goghs in a vault and nobody sees [them]. It’s just a way of giving back.” So the admission for the bunny experience? Free. Frazee chimes in, “Steve calls it giving. I call it sharing.”

They’ve shared their home with visitors as late as 10 p.m.: in one instance for a group of high school students who wished to visit after their graduation formal. Frazee gently warned the girls “Watch your dress,” as they navigated across the tightly packed rooms.

The collection has multiplied like bunnies. The sheer number in items, more than 28,000 and growing, and their singularity, as each figure is different from one another, can easily be called “obsession”. But it could also be described as “dedication.”

Lubanski says in one interview, “It’s the only animal that really has an official holiday. If you think about it, there’s no turkey day.” Among the most collected animals, the bunny is not readily available as the cow or teddy bear would be throughout the year. There’s the challenge in the quest, summoning ingenuity and perseverance, which remains still thrilling for them. Lubanski says, “We’ve just scratched the surface; every year, there’s more and more.” Individually, they scour different markets for bunnies: Lubanski searches through the Salvation Army stores and yard sales, while Frazee looks in gift shops and mail order.

For some, this same dedication is perplexing, if not troubling. This couple enjoys and pursues a passion that few would commit to, where there are no boundaries between owner and pet, hobby, home, and even art. Deceased bunnies including their first pet, Honey Bunny, are freeze-dried. Their live bunnies, Parker-Rah, Monterey and Jackie Rabbit, are let loose to run around when there are no tours. Broken bunnies rest in a plot they call the “Garden of Broken Dreams,” an unusual take on bunny art and conservationist stance. Blogger Hollywood’s review is typical. Using potent diction, the blogger paints the place as “bunny hell,” where the couple’s live pets sit mournfully, haunted by their doomed fate and the garden bears “rabbit shrapnel.” Ultimately, such reviews, even Hollywood’s that attempts for humor, shape the couple’s public image negatively of rabid fanaticism.

Frazee does not get upset over how the media pokes fun at them. “It doesn’t bother us at all. People just want to say things just to get attention.” Her experience for the last ten years of media coverage has taught her that bizarre stories sell. To avoid misinterpretations, she has become a shrewd spokesperson in interviews. “Reporters tend to take things and then spin it. We told the story how Steve had dressed up as a bunny in our wedding reception. Well, the guy from Los Angeles Times wrote Steve dressed up as a bunny when we got married. He made us look dumb and idiotic, real eccentric. I’m very careful about what I tell the reporters.” Frazee informs me with an amused look that tomorrow they expect a reporter from the radio station KLOS. “Heavy rock. Just imagine what they’re going to say.”

Reporters have said and made some outrageous assumptions about them before. One French reporter asked if she believed that she was a bunny in her past life. She replied “no.” The camera went off. The reporter informed her that the show was covering people from around the world who dressed as animals regularly.

The museum’s opening, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the collection, has exposed Frazee to a niche of extreme animal lovers, ready to embrace her into their fold.

Take the reporter who thought that she was a “furry.” Furries refer to a community of fans who create fictional animal characters with human traits and personalities, dress occasionally in costumes, and share them online or at conventions – for fun. But it has an alternate meaning too. It has also become a dirty word to term radicals who identify themselves as something other than human. They don in fluffy costumes or alter their looks with cosmetic surgery to resemble the animals they feel spiritually embody them. But she sets herself and her husband apart from them.

As Frazee says, “They stretch it.”

“‘You’re not wearing any bunny things,'” said one disappointed visitor who was dressed – shoelaces, socks, T-shirt, earrings – in full bunny attire.

Frazee says, “She expected me to be a crazy bunny lady. People come with their preconceived impressions of what I will be like, but we’re really normal.”

Whether it is normal or not, the Pasadena landmark has not deterred visitors of all sorts. Ambassador and head of the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations Commission on
Human Rights has held their Bugs Bunny phone in her ear. Members of the art punk/alternative band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs visited the museum, having toyed with rabbits in their artwork and sometimes, the casual question: “Wanna F**k?”

Today when identities can be discarded and formed by public relations, media, personas, and fantasy, the museum still stirs the imagination. Perhaps it’s the same thrill of a glimpse to an unfamiliar world. Or what the collection represents for some, as the eccentricity, spunk, and fresh enthusiasm that characterize the collectors of the kitsch. For me, it reflects the charm and intensity of quirky, but hidden America, reminiscent of the lifestyle of the Bouvier Beale ladies with their raccoon, opossum, and cat roommates, waiting to be discovered.

It’s Halloween night and open house in the bunny household. Frazee has put on bunny ears; gauzy streams of faux spider webs are strewn; a bunny display prop holds precariously candies and stickers; and Frazee and striped sienna cat Benji wait for trick-or-treaters to scamper onto pitch-dark Jefferson Street.

The scene set, Frazee and Lubanski fret over Benji who yowls for attention. “Oh, you’re such a talker,” says Lubanski with affection.

Lubanski’s remark “Animals, they do no harm,” underscores their gentle concern, to look out for animals, especially the bunny, which are defenseless against abuse, neglect and stereotypes.

In fact, they’ve made sure that none of their collectibles present the bunny in a crude, gruesome, or sexual way. That means no Playboy bunnies.

The museum is kid-friendly, though confronting petrified bunnies for the first time in blood-red lighting can be scary.

“Aw, guys. They’re cooking a rabbit,” says one zombie rockstar pointing to the plush rabbit sitting calmly in its own stew flushed in orange from the glow of stringed lights.

This year, only a few stop by to visit. One senses a tinge of nostalgia as Frazee reflects: “A couple of years ago we would get people lined up to our driveway.” For a brief moment, Frazee shows her vulnerability to disappointment.

But it has not stopped her will to share. This year she plans to release her book about angels, near-death experiences, and fundamental beliefs of the Swedenborgian faith called There is an Answer: Living in the Post-Apocalyptic World. It is a compilation of newsletters she had written and letters she has received through the last twenty years, answering questions about the Christian religion.

It will certainly not be a book for everyone. Certain tenets of the faith are quite esoteric, like how one’s afterlife promises the fate of being an angel or a demon, determined by one’s actions. Some Swedenborgian authorities questioned what right she had to write this, when she had no title or official permission to impart knowledge. Yet she definitely tries to make it relatable and palpable to understand. She takes such diverse topics as vegetarianism, the inspiration for the Chicago World’s Fair, the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City, Alcoholics Anonymous, Hurricane Katrina, famous people influenced by the theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772), and others to illustrate her points.

Her motive behind creating the book is the wish for “people investigating it more, looking more, researching more, thinking more. Basically I want people to think more spiritually, not materialistically. [Because] everything has a consequence.”

Frazee’s lecture, which goes from the subject of people’s disregard for propriety and consequence and follows up with a plan to get on Oprah, has a strong component of religious zeal. She has a mission, and there is this urge to compel others, to make her love for bunnies and her faith known to the public.

But for now, she is happy to show her adoration for bunnies to the kids. She flashes a toothy grin as she sees the zombie rockstar and her posse have returned, bringing more converts to the bunny haven.

Frazee says, “That’s what’s worth it. When they bring friends.”