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Spy Museum Goes Hollywood for Exhibit

In a world before mobile phones, those in the espionage business found ingenious ways to reach headquarters while on the go.

Often, these shifty agents used tiny communication devices stored in things such as a cigarette case.

Or they could use the phone in their shoe. Hey, it’s what Maxwell Smart did each week on “Get Smart.”

Smart’s shoe phone and other Hollywood spy creations will be on display starting Friday at the International Spy Museum in the exhibit “Spy Treasures of Hollywood: Highlights from the Danny Biederman Spy-Fi Collection.”

The exhibit is somewhat of a change of pace for the popular spy museum, which mostly features real-life espionage artifacts. But museum officials say Hollywood plays a major role in how people view the world of spies.

“Most people, their impressions, their understandings and even some of their insights come from popular culture,” said Peter Earnest, executive director of the museum and a former spy himself.

“The movies have sort of used the real things of the espionage world, and the espionage world has kept an eye of what is going on in the world of film,” Earnest added.

The exhibit features 35 artifacts from spy-related films and television shows. Biederman, who has worked as a consultant for several James Bond films and is the author of several Hollywood spy-related books, has been working on the collection for more than 40 years.

In all, Biederman estimates he has amassed around 4,000 pieces of memorabilia.

“It’s been a lifelong effort and passion, because it started when I was a kid,” Biederman said. “I started buying the toys that were in the toy stores.”

As he got older, Biederman began acquiring some of the actual props from studio auctions. His first was a costume from the 1960s show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

For years, Biederman kept the collection tucked away in boxes, bringing only certain artifacts out to show friends.

Then in 2000, he got a phone call from the CIA.

“I immediately thought I’d done something wrong,” he said.

Really, the agency wanted to put some of the studio gadgets on display. CIA officials came to Biederman’s home, helped sort through inventory and picked out some of the best pieces.

“I never thought I would have these things on exhibit,” Biederman said. “When the CIA called me, I thought it was really odd, but I had to do it.”

Since then, the collection has been well received, traveling to such locations as the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Biederman said.

“People were going crazy about it,” Biederman said. “I was really amazed.”

Pieces of History

The exhibit offers a range of Hollywood spy memorabilia: Dr. Evil’s ring from the “Austin Powers” films; “Mission: Impossible” self-destructing tape; Dr. No’s tarantula; James Bond’s Walther PPK handgun; and Sidney Bristow’s weapon-bracelet from “Alias.”

But Smart’s shoe phone is by far the most popular item in the collection, Biederman said.

“I just think it’s sort of ingenious,” said Earnest, who called the phone his favorite piece. “It was a running gag.”

Biederman, however, almost lost his favorite item from his collection before he even found it.

The collector already had spent years looking for the cigarette case communicator from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” when he heard a rumor from a studio prop worker that the piece was on its way to a dump. So, he called a friend in the prop business, who managed to track the piece down before it was destroyed.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Biederman said. “It was unbelievable. It was like the holy grail to me.”

But when Biederman got to the prop lot to pick up the piece, the friend told him it already had been thrown out.

“I was crushed,” Biederman said. “I was just crushed. I was so upset.”

As a consolation, the friend agreed to give a tour of the prop lot. As Biederman was walking by a trash can, he noticed something shiny.

There was the communicator, sitting among the garbage.

“It was really like a miracle,” Biederman said.

Fact and Fiction

So why are people so attracted to the world of spies?

“A real part of it is the world of spies, intelligence and espionage is a hidden world,” Earnest said. “And people are always interested in secrets. … As people look at events on the world stage, they come to realize that behind those events are secret events.

“It’s like a stage behind a stage.”

That secretive nature translates well into the movies, Earnest said. In a city such as Washington, D.C., spy movies (and spy spoofs) seem especially popular, he said.

“We are in a world of which espionage and the technology of espionage are absolutely in full employ,” Earnest said.

There can be parallels found in Hollywood and the real world, Earnest said, from the tactics used to some of the gadgets themselves.

But Hollywood spy treatments always have a clean ending (Bond always comes out on top), whereas real-life agents can spend decades on a case and success isn’t a guarantee.

And Hollywood versions are romanticized, Biederman said. The spies are heroic, the music is good and the characters are fun to watch.

“Even the serious ones, many of them are tongue-in-cheek,” Biederman said. “It’s still done with a lot of fun.”

Fun is what his exhibit is supposed to be, Biederman said. It allows people to not only see the fictionalized world of spies, but also bring up a few memories.

“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember that. This was my show,’” Biederman said. “It’s also a little bit like seeing a movie star and wanting their autograph.”

“Spy Treasures of Hollywood” runs through spring 2006 at the International Spy Museum, 800 F St. NW. Admission is included with a regular ticket for the museum. For more information, visit www.spymuseum.org or call (202) 393-7798.