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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Renee Brooks drove 13 hours from the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast. Jimmy Pagan brought his family from Savannah, Ga. Lois and Don Dwyer invited neighbors from Boca Raton, Fla., and plan to return again and again with other neighbors.
They all converged Thursday on the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale to be among the first to ogle the treasures of Tutankhamun in South Florida, where the "original king of bling" is igniting a bout of Tutmania that's infecting everything from pizza boxes to parades.
Judging from the approving crowds at the opening of "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," the boy king needs little introduction on the second stop of his comeback tour. His name and ethereal visage is as golden as it was when he drew an unprecedented 8 million museum-goers in his first seven-city U.S. blitz that began in 1976.
Just ask Cameron Barry of St. Augustine, Fla., who at 10 is just one year older than Tut when one of the last pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty ascended the throne for his short reign 3,300 years ago. No slouch in Egyptian history, Cameron marvels that a boy his age commanded an empire and an army, albeit with advisers, before dying at age 19.
"It was pretty cool. He rode into battle. It takes a lot of bravery to do that," Cameron said. "The hardest thing I have to do is pick the right answer to circle on my FCAT."
Like a number of children touring the hushed museum, audio headphones clamped over their ears, Cameron was playing hooky. But his mom, Breeze Barry, 33, had no qualms about pulling her kids out of school for what she described as a "once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Neither did Pagan of Savannah, who really had no choice.
"She's like an Egypt freak," he said, pointing a finger at his youngest daughter, Jessie.
She readily concurred.
"I love Egypt and I want to be an Egyptologist when I grow up. It started when I was 10 from watching the Discovery Channel and getting National Geographic," the 11-year-old said.
Megan Brooks' fascination with all things Egyptian began at home, which no long exists. Her house in Pass Christian, Miss., was yanked from its foundation by Hurricane Katrina, forcing the 6-year-old's family into a FEMA trailer.
But when the museum sent Megan's mother an e-mail reminder she had reserved tickets for opening day long before the storm, Renee Brooks, 37, followed through on the purchase.
"I home-school, and what an opportunity (this is) to see what we're studying in books," Brooks said. "Besides, wouldn't you rather look at this than broken pecan trees and mud?"
Her lessons are obviously paying off. Megan didn't hesitate when she spotted the colossal stone statue of Akhenaten, Tut's presumed father who was considered a heretic for introducing a new religion and abolishing the worship of multiple gods.
"That's the pharaoh who worshipped the sun, and made everybody mad," she announced.
That is not to say that adults were not equally mesmerized. Many saw Tut on his first tour, and couldn't wait for the encore. Others have been waiting to make amends for more than a quarter-century.
"I didn't go in the '70s, and I always sort of kicked myself for that," said Nadine Smeyne, 61, a retired judicial assistant who lives in Boca Raton. "I was chomping at the bit to get here."
Thanks to the museum's staggered ticketing system, she didn't have to wait long once she did arrive.
Tickets are sold in advance for a specific date and time, and more than 300,000 already have been claimed.
Egyptologists and museum curators, who are counting on selling 100,000 more before the exhibit ends in April, say the key to Tut's allure is more about mystery than science, more about a good yarn, than, well, bling.
From the moment British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tut's tomb in the Valley of the Kings 83 years ago, news of his find reverberated around the world, and never quit. Not only was the tomb intact, but the treasures were glorious, and the mysteries of his life and death enormous - and unresolved. Add a mummy to the mix, and public fascination was piqued, and never satiated.
"The obvious answer is the gold, but it has all these other elements that make the story so interesting," said Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale museum, which has quintupled its membership since becoming one of only four sites to snag the exhibit.
"It was an amazing discovery - the first intact tomb. He was a boy king, and why he died young is a mystery. Put it all together and it's a story that has kept the world's attention."
And become a marketing dream. Just as he did a quarter-century ago, when Tut unleashed a consumer phenomenon that included jewelry, clothing, movies, hairstyles and music - who can forget comedian Steve Martin's "King Tut" novelty song on Saturday Night Live? - the boy king is suddenly everywhere. His visage appears on cups at McDonald's, pizza boxes at Papa Johns and gift cards at Starbucks, even on a martini, called, ahem, a tutini, at a local restaurant.
Then, of course, there are the billboards that proclaim him "the original king of bling," a motto dreamed up by advertisers for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, who are thrilled that Fort Lauderdale's annual Winterfest Boat Parade this Saturday will be themed - what else? - "Jewel of the Nile." The bureau estimates Tut will pump an extra $120 million into the economy.
Holding a Tut coffee-table book and video at the museum gift shop, Dwyer, 48, is unfazed by the commercialism.
The Boca Raton businessman, who plans to return Friday with more neighbors, is confident the interest in Tut begets the hype, rather than the other way around. Still, he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing on the shelf: a Tut tissue box, dispensing paper handkerchiefs through the boy king's royal nostrils.
"Too me, that souvenir is appalling" he said. "That's a little over the top."
(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.