Anne Pezalla, who along with her sister Kate co-owns Lively Athletics in Oak Park, can add another title to her resume. She’s the curator of what is she is pretty sure is the world’s smallest museum dedicated to Betty White.
Television and movie star White was born in Oak Park and lived in the village for a few months as an infant. Despite her brief tenure, she made her mark on the village as evidenced by Betty White Day, which was celebrated on Jan. 15, 2022, on what would have been the star’s 100th birthday.
Pezalla says her decision to create the museum in one of the Airbnbs she and her husband operate in Oak Park was based a bit on whimsy, a bit on marketing and bit on the layout of this particular Airbnb, which had a surfeit of closets.
“I have to be honest; it is a closet,” she said.
As her husband did the handyman labor needed to turn the house with a mother-in-law unit into an Airbnb, Pezalla says she was the designated decorator. The basement’s overwhelming number of closets inspired her to think outside of the box.
While out with friends one night, she polled the group about how she should use the space, and inspired by the Elvis “shrine” in the original Val’s halla record store, she thought of making the space a shrine as well. Who else to make a shrine to but Betty White?
“It made all of my friends laugh, so I knew it was a good idea,” Pezalla said
Pezalla rented a projector, found an image of White, and got to work. She traced the projected image on the back wall of the closet with pencil, and then filled in her homage to the golden girl with paint.
She says there are four main components to the museum. A timeline tells the story of White’s professional life in pictures. The large painting on the back wall is filled with White’s signature sparkle. White memorabilia fills shelves on the walls, and a Betty White library rounds out the space.
Pezalla is quick to point out that the library consists of only a few books — the only ones she could find on White. She also admits that she has yet to read them, but adds, “Now that I have access to the library, and I’m a curator, I need to read them.”
“I know she was only in Oak Park about nine months, but I like to think we put her on the path to greatness.”
Pezalla said it wasn’t until recently that she noticed the widespread appreciation for White, pointing to an annual convention where attendees dress up like characters form White’s signature sitcom “Golden Girls.” A Betty White-themed restaurant is also in the works for Chicago.
“I happened to capture this Betty zeitgeist,” Pezalla said.
There’s no entry fee to the museum, but it isn’t actually open to the public. Guests of the Airbnb will have free access. Pezalla describes it as a goofy attempt to give the Airbnb a special Oak Park twist and make it stand out in a growing community of local, short-term rentals.
She and her husband own a handful of Airbnb units locally, and she says that while some people have mixed feelings on the short-term rentals, she sees them as a net positive for the community.
“We pay property taxes on them, hotel taxes and Airbnb fees, and these houses aren’t using the local schools, so we taking some pressure off the school system while paying into it,” she says.
She also points out that having rentals available can be a boon to other small businesses in the area. She says that most of her Airbnb clients are relatives coming to graduations and to spend holidays with family members, and she writes local guidebooks pointing her renters to locally owned business for dining and shopping.