Why would a couple of comedians build a museum in their Brooklyn apartment hallway dedicated to figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan?
Viviana Olen and Matt Harkins were only 6 and 7 in 1994, when Harding’s ex-husband and his friend plotted to wallop Kerrigan on the knee with a baton, knocking her out of the national championship.
“We remember a very Disney version of the story,” says Olen. “You know, this crazy, trashy person beat up the beautiful ice princess.”
But then, last year, the roommates watched an ESPN documentary about the scandal, and learned how complex the main characters really were. They were riveted.
“It’s just a great documentary,” says Harkins of The Price of Gold by Nanette Burstein, part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 anniversary series. “We couldn’t stop talking about it.”
“It digs so deep,” Olen says. “It’s such an American story, and it is such a soap opera, like Dynasty on ice.”
So they set up a Kickstarter fund, raised $2,036 and made a museum — in the passageway of their third-floor walk-up.
The Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum held its grand opening gala Saturday. Although the project in Olen and Harkin’s dark hallway is light-hearted, the exhibition is no joke.
“It is a very real museum with very real artifacts in a very long hallway that would have just been wasted space,” the museum website explains.
Now the space is filled with artifacts, posters, needleworks and a diorama devoted to the drama and tragedy of the attack that rocked the skating world and enthralled the media.
On the one hand was Harding, with her fluff of blonde bangs, home-made skating dresses and working-class Oregonian background. She was a national champion and an Olympian, the first U.S. woman to land a triple Axel in competition.
“She came from nowhere,” Olen says. “She was this tough scrapper. She was so hard-core, she had nothing to lose … But she showed that if you work hard enough, if you’re driven enough, you can be the best.”
Then there’s rival national champion Kerrigan, brunette, tall and lithe, wearing skating dresses designed by Vera Wang. She was the rule-follower, explains Harkins. She was a perfect fit for the glamour of the skating world.
Kerrigan was captured on camera just after the attack, which followed a practice session at the U.S. championship in Detroit. She sat crumpled in the hallway, clutching her leg, wailing “Why? Why?” as stunned officials crowded around.
The attack was bumbling. Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, had hired a hit man to break Kerrigan’s leg, but the blow only bruised her.
Kerrigan was unable to compete in the national championship, which Harding won, but was named to the Olympic team and won a silver medal in Lillehammer, Norway. Harding finished eighth.
Gillooly later pled guilty to racketeering. Harding got probation for conspiring to hinder the prosecution.
“She had this terrible thing happen to her,” Harkins says of Kerrigan. “You see her going through physical therapy and rehearsing, and then she goes right back on the ice and competes, wearing the same white dress … She shows up with all the cameras pointed at her and all the judges watching her.
“If you don’t respond to that, I don’t know who you are!” Harkins says.
The museum houses original copies of newspapers and magazines from the event, tracked down on Ebay. Journalist Lois Elfman, who covered figure skating in 1994, contributed press passes, judging cards and other artifacts.
A woman they had never met heard of the museum and contributed cross-stitched portraits of Harding and Kerrigan.
Olen and Harkins tried to contact the skaters themselves. They reached Harding through her New Zealand-based fan club. She responded that she thought the museum was cool, but was too busy being a mom to come, they say.
Kerrigan, also a mother and now a skating commentator, returned an official no-comment.
Olen and Harkins believe we all have a little bit of Nancy and Tonya within. Olen, who has a day job at the front desk of a midtown hotel, says she is 100 percent Tonya.
“I am a Nancy,” says Harkins, a tour guide. “But I do sometimes wish I was a Tonya.”
The museum is open by appointment — visitors can submit a request online, and Olen and Harkins will meet them at the corner bodega to escort them in. They plan to stay open at least till the lease runs out in a year. After that, maybe take the collection on tour, or lend to another institution. Who knows?
“We’re making it up as we go along,” Olen says. “We’re going to make sure it has a home and it will be given the respect it deserves.”