Fleeting Amusements

I've always been drawn to waxworks. I grew up near one of the best in the world, Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, Calif. The allure of the art form is difficult to explain. Attraction is so personally endemic we can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t feel exactly as we do. Why are we drawn to any aesthetic or person?

The majestic entrance to Movieland Wax Museum (1961-2005), Buena Park, Calif.

On a week-long business trip to New Orleans in October 2015, my first visit to the city, I looked forward to seeing Musée Conti, the city’s historical wax museum. My workshop hotel was located just a couple of blocks from the museum, but essential attendance ran from 8 to 5 daily; the museum was open 10 to 4. I felt a sense of urgency as Musée Conti, one of our more notable extant historical wax museums, would soon shut down after 50 years of continuous operation. The value of its land had so far outstripped the waxworks’ financial viability it would have been almost ridiculous for the founding family owners not to sell it. On January 30, 2016, the museum would close its doors forever to make way for condo development.

I did manage to go back and see it, just two weeks before it closed. Several blog entries on this site will document that memorable visit.

Detail from the enormous Battle of New Orleans set piece at Musée Conti, New Orleans, 2016

When next I returned to the city, in late July, the museum front looked just as I'd left it, but when I strained to look inside, I saw this where the lobby once stood…

The lobby of Musée Conti (1964-2016), as of July 23, 2016

Movieland met its own thankless end in 2005, once the land it stood on, too, could earn exponentially more annually than the museum could possibly generate. Dozens of waxworks across the country have been similarly gutted and, pardon the term, liquidated over the past few decades, tracing a downward trajectory of interest corresponding roughly with shifts in entertainment media from public to private domains. Attempts to reconcile that disconnect have led many historical museums to integrate rich interactive personal media into their public spaces, allowing visitors to precisely define their individual experience of the collection. The American Civil War Museum in Gettysburg shifted gears profoundly in 2014 when new owner FutureStake, Inc., dismantled its wax dioramas and auctioned the figures.

Gathering soldiers for auction

Lucky buyers leave the auction site with their score

The space has been reimagined as the Gettysburg Heritage Center, where visitors can learn about the town’s history and civilian inhabitants prior to the battle that would forever change its meaning. I root for this idea of repatriating the area’s unburdened soul, I do, but how I wish that soul could have been executed in wax! In announcing the changes, museum president Tammy Myers said that they would be creating a more interactive experience for visitors, with features such as smart tables and 3-D programming. “Realizing that everyone learns differently,” she said, “the new exhibit space employs many different educational tools in an effort to reach each guest.”

However noble such reimagining, however valuable a museum’s land, I’ve felt hollow as I watch these waxworks disappear. The impetus for this website, an as-yet loosely defined project dedicated to waxworks extant and in memory, came to a head with a chance meeting of a destined friend and our random visit to a B-grade tourist trap museum in a second-tier city. I won’t identify the museum here. I’m not interested in tearing down museums that are still trying to hang on. I have a place in my heart for all of them, even where figures are only sporadically labeled, where some have broken fingers and twisted limbs, where the cabinet lights are dimmed or snuffed entirely on figures whose disrepair has reached such crisis levels they embarrass even the most negligent operators.

Creepy Woody Allen with wing-man Bing Crosby, at a museum to remain nameless

Still, there was something going on at that museum on a level apart from our joyful appreciation of its poor execution, and apart from what a guest might experience in the most richly layered multimedia exhibit of historical information. We tagged after a family of four and listened as a father embraced the opportunity to teach his kids about presidents, classic sports heroes, and religious figures. Our sense of irony partially gave way in the face of his utter earnestness. It occurred to me that waxwork struck an essential balance here. Had it not been for the visual stimulation, I’m not sure the father could have held his kids’ interest in the subjects, and were it not for the singularity of wax representation, I’m not sure they would have been having a conversation at all. Instead of standing as a family in front of an admittedly off-kilter wax Lincoln—whose Gettysburg counterpart drew $1,500 at auction—the four would split apart, each to define his own exhibit’s content and boundaries. I think both formats of museum experience are valid and valuable, but barring a partner who’s extremely forgiving of hosting an uncanny valley in her living room, only one kind of exhibit can largely be enjoyed at home with some concerted Google sleuthing.

My new friend and I left the museum drunk with joy. In such a state, it took only a couple of real cocktails and some breathlessly related wax anecdotes to convince me that I needed to dedicate something beyond casual interest to the disappearing art form. And I have that beloved, anonymous museum to thank for this blog, this documenting, this obsession that gathers pace by the day.

August 2016 update: An agreement has been reached to resettle Musée Conti's collection, intact, as part of the revamped Jazzland Theme Park, to be built on the site of the Katrina-destroyed Six Flags New Orleans. While visually mesmerizing, the stagnant and increasingly decrepit remains of Six Flags have stood for more than a decade as a reminder of immense tragedy and corporate abandon. As much as I admittedly would love to see the ruins in person, professionals have artfully documented them for us, and it's high time the state of Louisiana is free of this particular albatross.

All text, Musée Conti images, and Woody Allen image © 2016 Sixpenny Waxworks; Movieland Wax Museum entrance scanned from tourist postcard; Gettysburg auction images © 2014 Sean Simmers