Pizza museum a testament to American culture

(From left) furniture maker Ryan Anderson, chef Joseph Hunter, collector Brian Dwyer, and investor Michael Carter, the cofounders outside the future Pizza Brain on Frankford Avenue, opening in August. Dwyer holds the Guinness record for "the world's largest collection of pizza-related items." APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
(From left) furniture maker Ryan Anderson, chef Joseph Hunter, collector Brian Dwyer, and investor Michael Carter, the cofounders outside the future Pizza Brain on Frankford Avenue, opening in August. Dwyer holds the Guinness record for "the world's largest collection of pizza-related items." APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 12, 2012

It should have been enough that Brian Dwyer, a 28-year-old Philadelphia film student and drummer, was last year named the Guinness World Records holder of "the world's largest collection of pizza-related items."

Yet obsession is a powerful thing. Dwyer's passion for all things pizza is so keen that he was able to persuade at least three other partners to create Pizza Brain — part pizza museum, part pizza restaurant — by purchasing and renovating two 19th-century buildings along Frankford Avenue's battered-but-burgeoning commercial corridor.

The seed for the venture (which includes a Little Baby's Ice Cream shop) was conceived a handful of years ago when the man with dough and gravy on his brain purchased a 1983 Fat Boys album with cover art featuring the rappers downing a pie.

At first, this cover became one more pizza-related item on the wall of a recording studio shared with his pal Chris Powell, with whom he hosted his first pie-themed art show ("Give Pizza Chance") in 2010. In time, as Dwyer found other pizza-related items, he saw it as muse — "Pizza is the official sponsor of the creative process," said Dwyer, who codirected 2009's competitive-eating doc Swallow Your Pride — but more important, as a cultural prism through which to view America.

Through his collection — pizza-delivering Ken dolls, movie posters from Mystic Pizza and beyond, posable "pizza cruncher" Noid toys from Domino's, a Ninja Turtle "pizza drop" machine, more than 200 45s and LPs — Dwyer believes you can follow the thread of popular culture for the last 100 years.

"You get to watch this country change through an adopted food that wasn't American, yet got adapted and spat out different visions of what it should be throughout different cities. It evolved," said Dwyer, the former drummerman for Papertrigger. And like the ephemera he collects, this ubiquitous food is still evolving. That's why the Guinness World Records people didn't name Dwyer's collection "memorabilia" — what they consider something that has a start and an end.

By the time Dwyer's collection took up the whole of his apartment, he began thinking how to better display it. Not only did some tentative searches on the Internet come up short for ideas, Dwyer found that a pizza museum was uncharted territory. An idea was planted.

"Why is a 21st pizzeria needed in an area where there are 20 comes down to Brian," said Pizza Brain investor Michael Carter, 45, a publishing exec who had been looking to invest in distressed commercial corridors in the last decade. Not only did Carter find what he was looking for along Frankford Avenue, he also found Dwyer's collection, enthusiasm, and willingness to educate the community inspiring. "The museum aspect is glorious — so is our pizza menu — but with so many schools in that area, Brian wants kids to know where the food they eat comes from, so we're going to bring in local farmers to discuss their produce."

Pizza Brain's restaurant menu, conceived by partner and chef Joseph Hunter, will be traditional American pie made by gas oven as opposed to the au courant use of coal, wood, or brick ovens. "We wanted to make American pizza just like the old, classic neighborhood style we grew up with," says Dwyer, who hails from Upstate New York. He led his team through a tour of famous pizzerias along the Eastern seaboard before starting Pizza Brain's final design.

Although a pizza joint, even one that's educational, is not original, a museum is. At least according to Dwyer's research. "I can't overstate how odd it is that we're the first group of people on Earth to collect all of these things and make them available for public observation."

Besides creating the restaurant/museum downstairs, the Pizza Brain team is rehabbing the two properties to include three apartments (one in which Dwyer and his wife live) and one carriage house. That job has mostly fallen to Ryan Anderson, 31, a Los Angeles transplant, who, despite being a partner in the project, wasn't particularly interested in pizza when he met Dwyer in 2005.

"Brian was looking for people who might be interested in helping him," Anderson says. "But the more things went along, the more I wanted to do. I didn't just want to help a friend with an interesting idea. I wanted it to become mine, to develop it together."

As a custom-furniture maker with design, sculpture, and architecture experience, Anderson bought the buildings last year with the Dwyer-led crew, spending seven days a week rehabbing what will be Pizza Brain's world-of-wonder.

Anderson's biggest challenge was to save Pizza Brain from looking like an Applebee's or Hard Rock Cafe with memorabilia nailed onto brick walls. "I wanted Pizza Brain to be an antithesis to obviousness," says Anderson, "a place where every time you visit, you discover a peephole with new pizza items."

Along with making Dwyer's collection a functional part of Pizza Brain's design — items are exhibited in glass floor tiles, inlaid in its chairs and benches — Anderson wanted to give the location a sense of mysterious fun; it's dominated by warm red tones. "I was inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy," Anderson said of the space that will open by the beginning of August. "It goes with Brian's version of an epiphany — that pizza is a sort of cultural observation point through which you can view everything in truly strange ways."

As Dwyer has soaked money into designing and constructing Pizza Brain, he hasn't been able to keep up the steady purchasing of ephemera. Still, there are a few recent additions: "I'm Your Pizza Man," a 45 from Chicago footballer Rosey Grier, a Looney Tunes comic featuring Porky Pig losing control of a pizza he's tossed ("It ends up on Elmer Fudd's head — pure comedy gold"), and a film poster from the 1970s adult film classic Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls.

Now at more than a thousand items, Dwyer's collection is growing as more people discover his passion.

"I run into guys at the Super Fresh who yell, ‘Pizza Brain, I have something for you.'?"

The connection is something Dwyer treasures.

"When I was in a band, someone would compliment me and I'd be like, ‘Great, thanks for digging what I do.' Now, when someone talks to me about Pizza Brain, there is a dialogue about something that we share, and something we'll continue to share as a community. That's pretty cool."

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