ORLANDO, Fla., May 2 (Reuters) - An over-stuffed garment rack in a warehouse on the outskirts of Orlando holds some of the world's most precious second-hand clothing.
The frothy white wedding dress worn by Madonna in her music video "Like a Virgin" hangs at one end, while crammed in the middle is Michael Jackson's red leather jacket from the music video "Beat It."
The clothes, along with Justin Bieber's skateboard and Ray Charles' Braille Playboy magazine, are among 40 pieces of rock memorabilia that will go on tour in the United States beginning on May 18 to celebrate the Hard Rock Cafe's 40th anniversary.
"If an artist gives us memorabilia, they assume we're going to take care of it and we're never going to sell it. We have a responsibility," said John Galloway, Hard Rock's chief marketing officer.
Ever since Eric Clapton donated a red Fender guitar in 1979 to the original Hard Rock Cafe in London, Hard Rock International, now a subsidiary of Seminole Gaming, has assembled what is billed as the world's largest collection of rock memorabilia, estimated to include at 73,000 pieces.
Much of the collection decorates the company's 171 restaurants, casinos and hotels in revolving displays. The rest is housed in what looks like a thrift shop.
Hard Rock typically acquires items through donations from artists and purchases at auction, but many pieces, such as Jackson's jacket, have an interesting history.
In 1984 Jackson gave the red jacket, adorned with 27 decorative zippers, to 14-year-old David Smithee of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was terminally ill with cystic fibrosis. Smithee died a month later. Hard Rock historian Jeff Nolan said the family eventually contacted Hard Rock.
The company will not discuss prices paid for items or estimate the value of the collection, other than to describe it as "priceless."
"It's a huge part of history. It's precious," Nolan said.
Hard Rock employees follow local bands and buy memorabilia, betting on the artists' future potential. That's how the company acquired Bieber's skateboard years before the teen Canadian pop singer became famous. It is also why there is a rack of blue jeans and T-shirts worn by little known heavy-metal artists from a Taste of Chaos tour two years ago.
One of the newest acquisitions is the dress Katy Perry wore for her 2008 MTV Latin American awards performance when she leapt into the show's four-tier pink anniversary cake and then skidded around the stage.
"We had to spend two days cleaning fondant off of it," Nolan said.
An item rarely leaves the Hard Rock collection, except if the artist has second-thoughts about a donation, as Peter Frampton did about one of his guitars.
"Years later, he stops at a Hard Rock and sees it on the wall and is like, 'Damn, why did I give that?' He came to us and was asking, 'What's it going to take."' Nolan said.
He made a deal to swap the guitar for the talk box and the off-white, chamois-cloth-like costume Frampton wore for his "Frampton Comes Alive!" album.
"If you listened to any kind of rock in the 70s, you had this album and Peter Frampton was wearing this," Nolan said.
The touring memorabilia will be displayed in a big rig truck at Hard Rock locations, beginning in New York City and ending August 17 in Hollywood, Florida.
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