WILMINGTON — Beyond the fence of the ILM airport runway there is a warehouse filled with a cluttered assortment of old movie and television set props surrounded by floor-to-ceiling stacks of baby boomer memorabilia.
The native Wilmington man who has spent decades collecting these items, Kenyata Sullivan, sat at his desk in the back of the warehouse one recent morning rummaging through Lefty Gomez miniature baseball bats made in the 1930s (sometimes, he said, he’ll collect items from generations before and after the baby boomers).
“We’re not your typical antique store. [We’re] more focused on G.I. Joes, Star Wars, comic books, baseball cards — the kinds of things I grew up loving,” Sullivan said. “And for me, that’s Spiderman and the Houston Astros, a whole different kind of aesthetic.”
He said he is moving his current retail store, Whatever Wilmington on Castle Street, nine blocks to the north at 117 Grace Street. He expects to open by the end of March, and said the two-story building will offer more space to exhibit a museum-of-sorts dedicated to Wilmington’s film industry.
He pointed to Dawson’s rocking chair from the first two seasons of “Dawson’s Creek”, actor Dennis Hopper’s silencer from “Blue Velvet,” and Peyton’s computer from “One Tree Hill.”
“I’ve already got this cool [stuff]. Why just leave it in my warehouse? Why not let people witness it?” Sullivan asked.
A family operation
An eclectic man who in the nineties toured with local band Pandora’s Lunchbox and later ran a music festival called W.E. Fest, Sullivan’s devotion to history and strange curiosities is a trait that, perhaps, was passed down from his parents.
“I am the only white boy born in the Deep South named after the accused leader of the Mau Mau,” Sullivan said, referring to the Kenyan 1960s extremist leader, Jomo Kenyatta, who led a violent uprising against white settlers and the colonial government.
Soon his wife, Grace Sullivan, walked around the corner.
“Do I need to bubble wrap the Fonz?” she asked, holding a 1970s-era coffee thermos featuring an illustration of the character Arthur Fonzarelli from “Happy Days”.
The warehouse is a family operation. Sullivan said his wife handles much of the packaging and online orders while his son Bremen — a geology major at UNCW — oversees much of the filing and makes runs to the post office.
According to Grace, her husband’s parents had mistakenly spelled Kenyata with only one “t” on the birth certificate. His mother, a retired English professor with a love of alligators, has written two books about her kayaking adventures in the Everglades and recently returned from a six-month trip to Africa, she said.
“This is his dream. We started out of our old family home 15 years ago. It’s his baby,” Grace said.
Bremen, 19, was near the front of the warehouse pulling an order for an online customer – an engraving entitled “Dr. Johnson and the Bold Court” dated 1881.
He acknowledged this wasn’t your typical family business.
“It’s pretty insane seeing some of the stuff around here,” Bremen said. “One of the weirdest things was a replica of one of the Xenomorph eggs that somebody cast from the original molds of ‘Aliens.'”
A rebounding industry
Kenyata said his collection of set props derives not only from his interest in the history of Wilmington’s film industry but also in the preservation of its “future history.”
After 2014, when North Carolina replaced an incentive program designed to attract film and television productions with a scaled down grant program, Wilmington’s long-running film and television industry began seeing productions move to Georgia instead.
“When they killed the programs, there was such an entrenched film community here — [production companies] knew they were going to come to Wilmington and have skilled crews, locals. That was known. And a lot of those people had to move because there wasn’t a lot of work for a while,” Kenyata said.
But he is encouraged by the current filming of superhero horror drama “Swamp Thing” and an upcoming pilot of “Reprisal”, set to premiere on Hulu. And he sees the film lobbying work of state senator Harper Peterson, a former mayor of Wilmington, as a positive development.
“The work is coming back, and I think the future is bright,” Kenyata said. “I know [Petersen] is busy lobbying to get back the original incentives.”
Perhaps the most tangible development was the removal of the controversial House Bill 2 (HB2), commonly known as the “bathroom bill.” Kenyata said the state law insulted many people in the film and arts community.
“If you’re in a community that has an awful lot of participants who do not prescribe to that kind of 1950s morality, they feel personally attacked,” Kenyata said. “And it’s very hard to run a Hollywood production and bring together a qualified cast and crew if you have to deal with that particular issue.”
Keeping film and television history alive
Kenyata aims to create a museum-type environment where television and film enthusiasts can browse and admire quirky set props, like a cut-in-half special effects cow from the Stephen King adaptation “Under the Dome.”
How Kenyata has come across such items over the years is a simple matter of long-standing friendships.
“I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve known people in the industry for a long time. I have access to things most people don’t have access to, just because I’m friends with people who make this stuff,” Kenyata said.
Today, with two television productions in town at the same time — he said an actor from “Swamp Thing” has become a regular at the Castle Street location — Kenyata hopes to continue his quest in keeping the history of the city’s film and television industry alive.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com