Reverend Jen apologizes for not wearing her elf ears. She normally wears them all of the time, but it's a sticky, sweltering summer day in the city and it's just too damn hot. She is standing in the living room of her apartment, where every visible surface (ceiling and floors included) is streaked and daubed with rusty oranges and reds. The space is cramped, as New York living rooms are wont to be, but this one is especially so. A kitty tower takes over one corner, while what looks like the lower half of a mannequin is overturned, the soles of its feet being used for a tabletop. Next to it, a bookshelf overflows with tomes, mostly about art.
By and large, though, the spatial awkwardness is due to fellow company. Also present are her dog, a tiny Chihuahua named Rev. Jen, Jr., a slightly larger cat, and roughly 400 troll dolls.
Stepping into Jen Miller’s walk-up apartment feels like entering the belly of a small whale—a whale that has just munched on a few hundred unusually furry crustaceans for an afternoon snack.
This is the Lower East Side Troll Museum. Unlike other museums, which have no trolls, the Troll Museum has NOTHING BUT TROLLS! At least, that's what the sidewalk fliers say, and it certainly appears to be true.
So. What are trolls? In myth and literature, they're a species of cave-dwelling supernatural beings that may or may not turn to stone when exposed to sunlight. There's also the Internet variety. But, in this case, as Rev. Jen explains on her tour, trolls are popular toys that were first made by Danish fisherman Thomas Dam in 1959, then mass-manufactured by various companies thanks to a copyright mistake, and later, in the ’70s and ’90s, underwent resurgences in popularity. And they're totally groovy. This is why the dolls and Rev. Jen—who was ordained online by the nondenominational Universal Life Church and prefers to be addressed using her ecclesiastical title, whether while promoting performance art or talking with friends—click so well.
“They are the closest thing to the physical embodiment of grooviness in the world,” she says, struggling to explain why trolls are her thing. “And I'm told that I am the physical embodiment of grooviness.”
A visual and performance artist by profession—she made the movie “Lord of the Cock Rings” and founded Art Star Scene (ASS) Studios—Rev. Jen’s appearance betrays her flower child past; she's wearing a loose cotton dress with broad blue stripes and her long black hair falls straight to mid-back. Her husky voice is matter-of-fact and easy to trust, particularly as she runs through troll history. Her sincerity is bracing, especially when it comes to trolls.
The Troll Museum has been in place since the early 2000s, with tours offered on a by-appointment basis and donations welcome but not mandatory. Though she posts sidewalk fliers, word has spread mostly by mouth and the Internet. She's well known enough in the troll-loving community that she was approached to write a book of fiction about Bratz-like trolls for young readers. A stack of the book's translations into various languages sits in the museum.
Rev. Jen will readily admit that her collection of troll dolls is not the largest in the world (that honor belongs to Ray Dyson, a Canadian), but that's not what's important: “The thing is each troll came to me for a reason,” she says. “Each troll has a story behind it.”
The museum tour is bifurcated: Rev. Jen reviews the formal history of trolls, including the ins and outs of the manufacturing, licensing, and cultural significance of the dolls, and her own personal history. She's not exaggerating when she says she knows where each doll comes from; point to one, and she'll tell you its backstory, what accidents it's encountered, and what cosmetic work she's done on it. Even the ones that have been given to her by others, as many have, have fully fleshed-out histories in her mind.
“That's the biggest troll I've ever seen right there,” says Rev. Jen, pointing into the corner, towards a three-foot-tall doll with spongy blue hair tucked under a construction helmet. His history: a friend found him on a curb in Coney Island and ferried him back to her.
One itinerant just showed up in the mail, accompanied by a tiny bottle of tequila and a letter from a bunch of do-gooders explaining that they found him wandering the desert. The tequila was intended to make his journey more comfortable. Another had “Ringo Starr” written on the soles of his feet, which led Rev. Jen to the unconfirmed theory that he may have once belonged to the Beatles drummer himself.
“People get really excited when they find them because they know I'll be totally stoked,” said Rev. Jen. Any and every troll seeking refuge is welcomed by her. Four hundred is the number she quotes when pressed for a ballpark estimate, but she admits that even she doesn't even have a good idea of the number of dolls in her possession.
Given the misfits that show up at her door, the museum doubles as the Lower East Side Troll Rehab Center. Though she avoids easy grabs on eBay, she made an exception for The Haunted Troll, whose former owners were seeking to give it away and get it out of their lives.
Rev. Jen estimates that she could spend seven hours on a tour (if she found a willing audience) and once hosted an all-day open house with twelve hours of nonstop troll talk.
The museum itself has a history now, too, given the thirteen years that it's occupied this space. Paper plaques stapled to the walls list items damaged in the Great Steam Pipe Explosion of 2010, and one shelf was broken by the Minor Earthquake of 2011.
“There was no other damage done to any other museum in New York, except for the Troll Museum, where this shelf broke in half,” Rev. Jen says. “Weirdly, it happened to be the shelf where all the troll doctors are, and also a troll that had its legs eaten off by Reverend Jen, Jr., when she was a puppy.”
At one point, a troll falls off a shelf and hits the ground with a sickly thud; Rev. Jen pauses long enough to holler “Troll down!” before continuing.
A framed picture of the Board of Directors (the Backstreet Boys) occupies a spot of honor in the corner.
“They've never been officially informed of this, but...” shrugs Rev. Jen, trailing off.
The collection started a few decades ago, when an 11-year-old Jen Miller saw the troll doll that would bust open the floodgates. She bought it at the mall with pocket money procured from sales of her zine, Jen Magazine, a 10-cent rip-off of the National Enquirer that she made with the help of her father's secretary. The doll was Adrianna, a medium-sized troll with a yellow shift dress and (now) gold sequins in her hair, courtesy of a post-steam pipe explosion emergency hairdressing party. The troll is one of the few Rev. Miller will point to when asked to choose a favorite, after first demurring.
“You've gotta love all your trolls equally if you're gonna be a curator,” she says, but admits that Adrianna might lay claim to the title. Another up for consideration is the tiny troll Tiresias—lost for a second until she spots him on a nearby shelf—a gift from her first boyfriend.
Rev. Jen’s apartment is a small but fluid space. Visitors pass in and out easily.
“I've had to move all my books into the Troll Museum due to lack of space because we have, like, 80 people living here,” she sighs. Her boyfriend moved in two years ago, and an ever-rotating cast of friends crash there nearly constantly. Her friends Faceboy and Scooter are doing a collage project in her kitchen during my tour, and even the cat occupying the kitty tower is a stray that was recently taken in.
The Beatles are playing in the background as strains of conversation float into the tour; Scooter answers her phone at one point, offering a breezy “Yeah, we're cutting out porn faces from porn magazines.” Rev. Jen halts her spiel and snickers, “What we've been doing for hours,” before launching back into the rise of the Uneeda dolls.
The demand for tours is actually higher than Rev. Jen can answer. The museum attracts curious types as well as other troll enthusiasts, who sometimes bring their own dolls to visit hers. One couple returns almost every Valentine’s Day.
The Troll Museum is no stranger to celebrity either, having supplied music photographer Mick Rock with trolls for a shoot. It contains an autograph from Steven Tyler (“To Rev. Jen—the uncoolest person I know”). The Danish CEO of the Norfin Company, the original creators of trolls, even came for a visit.
“The fact that this man in a three-piece suit who's the CEO of a multimillion dollar company sat down in my kitchen and had a beer with me and talked about the history of trolls,” she says, incredulity plain in her voice, “it was like being a basketball fan and having Michael Jordan just come over and have a drink. I just couldn't believe it was happening.”
Recently, Rev. Jen fired up a new museum initiative: the Troll Stroll. A guided tour of the Lower East Side that ends up at her door (and ergo, the museum), the stroll is dedicated to “keeping the Lower East Side weird.”
“We're not afraid to use the g-word—gentrification—on the Troll Museum tour,” says Rev. Jen. She's lived in the neighborhood for over twenty years, and her rent-stabilized apartment keeps her sticking around, but she misses the old, grittier LES. Hotspots on the tour include Economy Candy (“we buy candy cigarettes and pretend to smoke ‘em”); Jade Liquors (“the most awesomely run-down liquor store on the planet”); and the “Stonehenge of the Lower East Side,” which apparently is a bunch of discarded vodka bottles.
Money's tight, especially since she just lost her longtime job working in the gift store of the nearby Tenement Museum. She half-jokes about busting open some old piggybank trolls for spare change.
“My hope is someday it will be a Troll Museum bar,” Rev. Jen said. “It will be a storefront, and just a couple of folding tables and a big, big jar of beer and that's it.”
With the museum now more than a decade old, and the dolls a further decade removed from mass popularity, she believes there will always be those interested in trolls.
“It's just going to be one of those things that will always happen. I don't think they're ever going to go out of style,” says Rev. Jen. “They might have their moments—their day in the sun was definitely 1992—but kids are always going to collect them. There's something so magical about them.”
On her latest Troll Stroll, a nine-year-old girl named Eden tagged along with her aunt and contributed some custom artwork captioned “TROLLS RULE!!!” It now hangs in the museum, alongside paintings by Rev. Jen.
Miller doesn't usually like having children in the museum, cramped as it is, but, she says, Eden reminded her of her younger self—the National Enquirer-plagiarizing 11-year-old who saw a troll doll in the mall and had to have it.
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Charlotte Murtishaw is a college student/freelance writer living in New York. She'll learn, one day. Incoherent tweets to be found @charshankredemp.
Brad Horrigan, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a photojournalist and multimedia storyteller based in Queens.