Click for slideshow

There are many Danes who have contributed to history, but perhaps none is as universally known as Hans Christian Andersen. The renowned author of fairytales would have turned 206 on Saturday, and to celebrate, the museum that bears his name threw a party with a little help from the man who would be Andersen.

It is a little after 1 in the afternoon. Up a flight of stairs, past rows of old books and through a small archway sits the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. Situated above both the Bulldog Café and the Book Loft, the museum offers a collection of Andersen artifacts. Here in a corner room, more than 20 people have gathered. They sit in chairs or on the floor and stand around the edge of the room. They listen to a story, and as they enter the room they are greeted by a man in a tall top hat, long coat and smart vest.

That man is Randel McGee, known to many children as the storytelling puppeteer behind Groark the dragon, but today he is portraying Andersen. “Welcome, welcome,” he says in a Danish accent. As the guests are seated, he begins his story: The classic tale of a princess and the pea under her mattress. McGee has a gift as a storyteller, but it was inspiration found in this very museum that allowed him to step into Andersen’s shiny shoes. Kathy Mullins isn’t quite sure what her title is at the museum. “Something like director or curator,” she says. While there might not be an official title, Mullins is a driving force and with her husband, gathered most of the museums collection over the last 40 years.

She started by collecting used Andersen books, because she lived in Solvang and it seemed to fit. Buying and selling Andersen became a part of business at the Book Loft, but over time something changed. “Sometimes we got such good copies, we hated to sell them,” she said. Eventually the decision was made to start an Andersen museum and Mullins started the Ugly Ducking Foundation. She found pieces all over the world from New England to Denmark.

Her array of Andersen pieces grew as she acquired more information and books. Sitting in front of her desk are five versions of the Ugly Duckling story, each with a unique illustration style, which goes to show just how popular and universal Andersen’s many works have become.

She takes visitors around the museum, showing off some of her favorite items. There are letters in Andersen’s own hand, books with holograms, brightly illustrated antique editions of his stories, books in Danish, Chinese and even Hebrew. But there is one book, displayed prominently on a shelf in the middle of the room. It features a black cover with a picture of a white paper cutting spread across it. It is a book about Andersen’s beautiful works in paper, and it is that book that connected McGee with the famous Dane.

McGee had been doing paper-cutting while he told stories, but it was on a trip to Solvang and a visit to the museum where he first saw this book. He learned that Andersen also cut paper designs during his stories as a sort of window to his own imagination. A seed was planted in McGee’s mind and he started to develop his Andersen character. He read diaries, autobiographies and Andersen’s own record of his life, trying to discover who the father of our modern fairy stories was.

In the end, McGee found Andersen to be a bit high-strung with a strong sense of vanity but at the same time full of wit and humor. He said he found a man who had a profound way of connecting with the human experience. McGee said in our modern age Andersen’s universal appeal is special, in that “his stories help us connect on a personal level, it’s something people hunger for.” Mullins agreed: “It’s something that can be read when you are young and something that can be read all through your life.” She said she had seen visitors to the museum moved nearly to tears when they looked over the works they had known for their whole lives. She said some didn’t even know their favorite stories where written by Andersen.

The works of Andersen and the collection of his Solvang museum are too large to cover in one page and worth exploring. The museum is open from 10-5 daily and can be accessed from Bulldog Café or the Book Loft, 1680 Mission Drive. Think of almost any fairytale, and there’s a good chance you’ve thought of an Andersen.