With the Pageant opening this week, Linda Edwards shakes her head when asked whether she's going to expand her artistic ambitions to her husband Joe's new entertainment palace. That's a firm no: "I got burned out with the Tivoli and the expansion here (at Blueberry Hill). I don't know how Joe does it. I'm totally in awe of him. He can have 25 balls in the air. It seems as he does more, I do less."
As Joe has expanded the Loop into his own mini-Luxor, Linda has kept her ambitions on a more intimate scale. Since the first Blueberry Hill expansion in 1986, Linda estimates, she has designed close to 200 displays in the window on the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Westgate Avenue. The activity has proved "the perfect thing for me," she says over a bowl of the renowned Loop restaurant's renowned chili. "This window -- it's totally fulfilled me."
Linda's window displays are by turns sly, audacious, campy, vulgar and always artful. If not on the scale of Barney's in Manhattan -- a scale that she would certainly resist -- her window fills a niche in a part of the city that offers the walking-and-gawking pleasures of the boulevard. Each year Linda designs dual tributes to Elvis, on the anniversaries of his death and birth. "That window's gotten more absurd because Elvis has gotten absurd," she says. A living family tableau of the Presleys appears on a hot August night each year -- Momma looking tired in a housedress, Daddy looking a trifle out of place, a young Priscilla with big hair and, one year, Lisa Marie escorting her single-gloved husband, Michael Jackson -- all in a miniature Graceland, with Elvis impersonator Steve Davis, the sole professional performer on show. Linda realizes that most people remember the August window, but she is proud of the more subtle display she designs to commemorate the King's birth each January. One year, she reveals mischievously, in the folds of drapery used for backdrop, she placed lots and lots of pills.
Linda is shy and reserved when first sitting down to that bowl of chili. Her light-blond hair is fading lighter. Her wardrobe is counterculture casual. When Linda is given the opportunity to talk about her window, her shy reserve gives way to wide-eyed exuberance. Does she remember the first window? "You bet!" It was a Halloween display called "Witches' Night Out," for which Linda created a witch's bedroom with "several old friends" surrounding a large vanity. "It looked elegant and dirty," she recalls. She and her friends played "beautiful witches, all dressed in black," creating silent scenes every 15 minutes, "I was looking in the mirror adjusting my hat. Jill (Posey-Smith, local rocker and former RFT food writer) was buttoning her blouse." They repeated the tableau from 10 p.m.-midnight, she says, to a growing street audience. A lot of people, "at least 50." Then she asks uncertainly, "Is that a lot of people?"
The sly humor in Linda's artistic expression is found in the details. For "Witches' Night Out," all the hags smoked Salem cigarettes ("You know," she says, "the Salem witches"). For a window promoting a touring production of David Mamet's Oleanna, Linda re-created the playwright's academic battle scene, complete with mannequins as professor and student, a blackboard chalked with Mamet's pointillist dialogue and, finally, one little detail only the most perceptive of viewers would notice: On a Coke can, Linda affixed a tiny bit of fake hair, referencing the living drama (or comedy) of sexual harassment from the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
One of Linda's most memorable, and wickedly clever, window scenes followed the mass suicide of Heaven's Gate cult members. "When I was reading a story about it, I saw it in my head," she says. "I thought it would be so easy to do. They lived in houses that didn't have any decorations. All the props were easy to gather up." That window was one of those rare, and exhilarating, shocks to the common Loop stroll. With the perverse cult and its bizarre ritual suicide firmly planted in the mass consciousness by the news media, there on Delmar was a precise representation of the death scene, complete with a mannequin covered with a purple shroud and sporting Nike shoes; beside the body were a bottle of Absolut vodka, a vial of pills and a duffel bag.
Linda recalls charges of bad taste from "people who were sensitive about death," but, she argues, the members of Heaven's Gate chose their fate, so, "sayonara, good luck." She remembers her assistant carrying the duffel bag and singing, "My bags are packed/I'm ready to go ..."
Linda's preferred medium of expression is the found object, and not just with regard to her inanimate props. Her children have played everything from Lisa Marie Presley to the Dionne quints -- a perfect subject for the window, says Linda, because the quintuplets "were raised behind glass; we all dressed as 2-year-olds." Blueberry Hill servers and customers have taken part as well. For one display, Linda invented a group called the Kick-Start Stitchers: "I thought it would be funny to have a motorcycle club who were also quilters." She mentions a Blueberry Hill regular, a Valkyrie-riding biker named Tony whom she coaxed into sitting in the window, in full biker regalia, stitching quilt squares.
In the kind of coincidence not uncommon to Blueberry Hill, as Linda begins a tour of her upstairs studio, there's Tony himself, with his tattoos, leather vest and squarely built physique, the kind perfectly designed for a low-riding motorbike. "Linda can talk anybody into anything," he says of his one-night quilting performance. "It's good you're writing about her. She really deserves the recognition." Linda introduces some of the servers who have participated in the window's living dioramas. Blueberry Hill, more than a restaurant, is Linda's central casting.
Upstairs, Linda shows off her collection of props and stage scenery: bolts of fabric, costumes, mannequins, a blue pheasant, a vanity, a basket of giant Easter eggs. Her enthusiasm for all of this weird stuff, and all the weird stuff's possibilities, turns her into a buoyant teenager. In one room is a case of small champagne bottles. "This is my new project," she says, pulling out an empty bottle. She's in the process of draining these of their contents so they'll fit into an as-yet-undesigned window: "I first liked pouring in a glass, but lately I just drink right out of the bottle." She mimes the act of a champagne lady, grinning giddily.
When Linda gets silly, it's not surprising to discover that the artistic evolution of the window began with her early artistic experience. Her parents gave free rein to her creativity, she says: "This is what I did as a kid. I really haven't progressed."
Linda may feel she has suspended her childhood, but her window displays grow more refined, more subtle, more provocative. The new "Sisters of Our Lady of Chantilly" presents, as a framed caption explains, "Four nuns from a local Chantillion Abbey, whose mission is to spread devotion through teaching the magic of makeup, will offer their services to the faithful and the merely curious."
The scene is the blue and white of Fatima, except the Our Lady in the corner is looking fabulous: porcelain-white with Chanel-red lipstick and long eyelashes. Votive candles of blue and white are everywhere. A divan embroidered in two tones of blue is centered in the scene, ready for novitiates. Makeup kits abound -- the square silver cases, the compacts and eyeliners and pencils and brushes and lipstick gleam efficiently, unused, virginal. Within each case is a brief motto, printed on a blue card, like those above the thresholds of Catholic-school doors: "Is it you, or is it makeup? Only the Lord knows for sure"; "Putting a face on a new religion"; "Gorgeousness is next to Godliness"; and the poignant theological question "What would Jesus wear?"
As Joe gives the Loop its commercial restoration, Linda delivers the spiritual makeover.