Bell Collector Known as 'Ding-a-Ling' to Friends

Times Staff Writer

Rosa Johnson of Altadena is a collector extraordinaire.

An assortment of bottles line her shelves, 200 dolls from all over the world crowd a cabinet and more than 3,000 bells hang from the ceiling or sit on shelves lining windows.

In a way, this spritely grandmother collects children too.

More than 300 youths from around the world have stayed with her from three months to two years as part of international exchange programs such as Youth for Understanding and International Experiment of Living. Photographs of her "international children," as she calls them, fill 50 albums and cover a living room wall.

"My mother said I would always bring somebody home to eat and visit whether I knew them or not," Johnson recalled about her childhood in Pittsburgh. Johnson, who says she is over 65, has three children of her own.

Her international relationships have spanned generations. A girl from Mexico City she played host to 27 years ago is now a mother and will be sending her daughter to stay with "Mama Rosa" this fall. Another family has had four children stay with her. And Johnson will be attending the wedding of a "son" in France at the end of the month.

Her new friends translate into more bells.

"Instead of sending me a box of candy or soap, they send me bells," she said, adding that a German girl just called asking if she would prefer a large or a small bell.

Her bells come in all sizes and shapes. Wind bells, chimes, hand bells and figurine bells grace her home and sometimes serve as centerpieces for the dinner table.

In one glass cabinet alone are packed Delft porcelain bells from Holland with delicate blue designs, crystal bells from Austria, Belgium and Germany, and hand-painted British Fento bells of translucent milk glass with glass clappers.

Johnson's face lights up as she launches into tales about precious favorites.

"Oh, what a darling bell," she sighed, holding up a regal 5-inch czarina, a miniature Catherine the Great of Russia in solid brass.

Proudly jingling a hodgepodge of rusty bells on a worn rope, she said: "I drooled for these for 10 years." The combination, which includes a copy of a bell from Mission San Juan Capistrano, used to hang from the gate of an elderly gold prospector she met while rock-hunting near Las Vegas.

When he died, a neighbor brought them to her as a gift.

"I'm very popular at Christmas with my bells," said Johnson, who frequently gives presentations on bells and their uses at churches, schools and homes.

"My friends call me 'Ding-a-Ling,' " she said.

Johnson welcomes traveling bell aficionados to her home as hostess for the 60-member Southern California Campanology Club, a chapter of the American Bell Assn., which has 5,000 members nationwide.

Fifty-five years ago she "started collecting bells because I couldn't learn to play music," said Johnson, who signs off "tunefully yours" in letters to bell association friends. "I tried to play the piano and my teacher said, 'Rosa, why don't you give it up.' "

"Bells of India have wonderful tones," she went on, gently ringing a resonant brass elephant bell resembling an inverted goblet. Indians sometimes tie a string of these bells around the massive animal's feet to warn people to stay out of the way.

Although it was music that drew her to bells, Johnson is intrigued by their myriad uses and the customs and cultures behind them.

For instance, four bells are fused in the shape of a cross in an Oaxacan prayer bell, which was made from black clay found only in the Oaxacan Mountains in Mexico. The Zapotec and Mixtec Indians would attach the bells to wheels they turned in Mayan rituals. The Mayan civilization flourished in this mountain region on Mexico's south Pacific coast around AD 900.

Another bell, used by monks in Tibet, is made from wood with clappers on two sides.

Among her American Indian collection are ankle bells for dancers and vibrantly colored hand-painted wind bells that symbolize happiness. The bright shades celebrate the legend of a tinkling bell that led warriors of a Grand Canyon tribe to their lost princess a century ago.

But Johnson's pride is a Russian sleigh bell that she estimates is close to 500 years old. She demonstrates how the five little bells encircling a larger iron one would jingle on a horse's neck as it trots.

"I love all my bells, whether from a dime store or an antique," Johnson said. "They are all special."

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