Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of

Looking Forward: Walk-Thru Shuttle, Sidewalk Sea Monster

2015We’ve been at this game long enough to know that promised roadside wonders have a way of vanishing like icy beverages out of a back seat cooler in July. Rumors, press releases, and premature news stories set the stage for disappointment. And yet, 2014 was a year when many promises came true, even those that sounded preposterous just a year ago.

There really is, right now, an 11-story-tall statue of Pegasus killing a dragon in Miami, and a giant slot machine that spits out people on a zip line in Las Vegas. The Morbid Anatomy Museum opened as promised in New York City, and 2014 saw the surprising return of old favorites such as the Rocky and Bullwinkle statue, the World’s Tallest Grandfather Clock, and the Recycled Roadrunner. Even the World’s Largest Thermometer has been switched back on.

Slotzilla zip line, Las Vegas
Slotzilla zip line, Las Vegas

And for 2015? It should be the year that the future is decided for Foamhenge, which will either remain as part of a new state park or will be moved to one of several nearby towns vying to be recipients of its mysterious tourist-attracting powers. We’ve seen reports that the Palace of Depression, a construction project decades in the making (although that’s not why it’s depressing), may finally open to the public in 2015, as may the long-abandoned Holy Land USA after an extensive clean-up. The Tank Museum, which was supposed to move last year, may move in 2015 or it may not: tanks are not easy things to move. The same issues with mass have impeded the relocation of the World’s Largest Fire Hydrant, which was supposed to move in 2014 until it was learned how much it would cost.

Tesla Coil
Tesla Coil, Mid-America Museum, Hot Springs, AR

Definitely scheduled to reopen in 2015, after lengthy closures for repairs, moves, and upgrades, are the Cincinnati Police Museum (with its stuffed hero police dog), the Mid-America Science Museum (with its lighting-spitting Tesla coil), and the Texas Musicians Museum (with its slightly used coffin of The Big Bopper). The Dillinger Museum will be a welcome site of blood and mayhem when it reopens in March, as will America’s Largest Pyramid (in April), and America’s only floating bridge (in May). The bridge has been closed for seven years; the pyramid for eleven.

New attractions promised for 2015 include the Space Shuttle Independence, a full-size Shuttle replica bolted to the roof of a real 747 in Texas, that you’re supposed to be able to walk through and strap yourself into; a giant Kraken sculpture busting out of the streets and sidewalks of a town in Oregon; a Museum of Osteology (human and animal bones) that will open in Orlando; and a huge statue of Christopher Columbus, as big as the Statue of Liberty, which is supposed to go up in Puerto Rico. Oh, and the RoboCop statue in Detroit, which was originally promised for 2011, then 2012, 2013, 2014, and now 2015. Goes to show that building things in the real world takes time.

Of course, every year there are complete surprises. At this time in 2014 we knew nothing of Shark Girl, or Machine Gun America, or the Giant Licking Cat Head. What unforeseen marvels await in 2015? Dunno — but we’ll tell you about ‘em when we do!

Sections: Coming Soon
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Dr. Mütter: Surgeon Behind the Specimens

Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum started as the ultimate cabinet of curiosities, and for all the right reasons.

Since our very first visit, we’ve loved it and its world-class collection of 19th century pathological specimens and anatomical models. Walls of skulls, organs in jars, cutaway brains, rows of eyeballs… a perfect blend of elegance and oddity. Unlike a full-body road trip rash, museums such as this don’t just spontaneously appear; they are the result of careful and dedicated collecting and preservation.

Thomas Dent Mutter
Thomas Dent Mutter
The Mütter Museum started with the bequeathed collection of the museum’s namesake, Thomas Dent Mütter, a pioneering Philadelphia surgeon and medical school teacher. The first biography about Mütter’s life, researched and penned by author/poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, vividly reconstructs the wild world of medical science circa 1820-1860, and how important Mütter was to some of its advances. It’s essential reading for  Mütter Museum fans and anyone interested in medical history (or who enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s cable drama The Knick).

book cover In Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, Aptowicz transplants the reader ringside into the first American operating theaters. Fully awake patients were cut open without anesthetic by doctors with unwashed hands and filthy instruments.

Mütter himself was fastidious, washing his hands before surgery. He was also a clotheshorse, dressing in colorful, expensive outfits that stood out among the stodgy hues of other surgeons. Yet he was respected for his surgical precision, his attention to detail, and, eventually, his groundbreaking ideas.

Young Mütter studied in Paris (where he acquired one of his first pieces — a wax model of a French woman with a horn growing out of her forehead). In Philadelphia, as a teaching doctor at the new Jefferson Medical College, he ultimately imported the best techniques he’d learned from Europe.

Medical students were trained about maladies, disease and injury by viewing specimens and handling anatomical models. Mütter acquired and preserved these valuable aids throughout his career.

skull Aptowicz also chronicles fascinating medical politics and professional rivalries. It’s hard to imagine, but there was broad doctor resistance to the use of anesthesia when it was discovered. “Dr. Mütter’s Marvels” describes how that game-changer advanced among the old guard and the new thinkers. Mütter apparently got it right away, and worked to convince his colleagues that there were better ways to judge effective surgery than by the volume of the patient’s screams.

In contrast to the bedside manner practiced at the time (which was essentially no bedside manner) Dr. Mütter was compassionate and interested in his patients as individuals.

Dr. Mütter had a special interest in “monsters” — people disfigured by accident, disease or congenital defect. Pickled specimens helped him and his students strive for cures and surgical solutions to conditions long thought incurable. His goal was always to return these “monsters” to normal lives.

Book chapter open.One example detailed by Aptowicz: treatment for women with horrible burns on their jaws and necks, from mishaps such as kitchen cooking fires igniting their layers of restrictive clothing. The resulting face melting might leave the victim alive but permanently disfigured, neck and jaw contorted. Mütter devised a radically innovative procedure, today still called the “Mütter Flap,” where healthy and flexible back and shoulder skin of a burn victim would be pivoted up to replace the immobile scarred tissue on the neck and jaw. Mütter was a pioneer in plastic surgery.

Dr. Mütter, often ill himself, died young at age 47. Aware his days were numbered, he was determined to teach beyond the grave with his extensive hoard of specimens and models. He willed his collection and an endowment in 1858 to a professional society, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, who constructed a building to house it all. The museum opened to medical students and professionals in 1863.

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Gotham, 384 pp)

(Photos: Woodcut from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter; From the Author’s personal collection.)

Sections: Attraction News
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The Do Nothing Machine

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine

The most oddball exhibit at the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum, Carlsbad, California, is its Do Nothing Machine, a gear-punk marvel of inventor obsession. If you take the tour of the museum’s workshop, you’ll probably get to see it run… if it’s not broken.

Designed and built starting in the late 1940s over the course of seven years, Lawrence Wahlstrom of Los Angeles built an insanely complex contraption. It contains 764 gears and elements. Though it has been labeled at times as a “Flying Saucer Detector,” its complete lack of purpose has made the other name stick.

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine
Tour guide and master machinist Dave Belt extols the virtues of this one-of-kind gizmo. It’s driven by three motors, one extracted from an old slot machine.

The center of the Do Nothing Machine, hidden behind layers of belts and gears is part of a World War II Norden Bomb Site.

It’s not exactly miniature in the sense of the other machines at the museum, but it is a marvel of excruciatingly elaborate mechanics. A posted fact sheet informs: “The three electrically powered motive forces are gravitationally free, non-syncronal, trapezoidal seclusion wound and in the Delta configuration.”

In case you were wondering.

Dave shows us a round gear driving a square gear driving an oval gear. Then he uses his always handy yellow pencil acts as a pathway for our eyes to arrive at the wonders within the Do Nothing Machine. “There’s a sprocket, with no axle, that stays in the same place.”

Someone has to keep the Do Nothing Machine running, and that duty seems to fall on Dave. In the course of a year, “it’s broken down about a dozen times,” he told us. He’s managed to coax it back to 100% pointlessness each time, to the delight of museum visitors.

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine

Sections: Places

Florida Forbids: Anthropomorphic Alligators

Gay Dolphin Gift Store, Myrtle Beach, SC

We were shocked when we first read of one of the new April 2014 “rule tweaks” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As reported by the Naples Daily News:

Forbidding the sale of stuffed baby alligators that depict “an unnatural body or body part positioning.” That could mean human poses, including standing upright or waving.

So, a ban of a classic (albeit repulsive) Florida souvenir. No! Then we thought about it for a moment, and tried to recall — had we ever seen such a thing?

Gift shops from South Carolina to eastern Texas sell many types of gator souvenirs: we’ve seen baby gator heads, and baby gator feet riveted onto key chains, and anthropomorphic ceramic gators posed as golfers or open-mouthed ashtrays. We’ve bought seashells humanely glued together to form cartoon gator sculptures.

Carved alligator souvenir, Arkansas Alligator Farm, Hot Springs, AR.
Arkansas Alligator Farm, Hot Springs, AR.

Clearly there is no shortage of baby gator body parts and no restrictions (other than the limits of imagination) when it comes to turning an image of a gator into something quasi-human.

But who would go to the trouble of stuffing an actual baby gator so that it was waving or doing anything else unnatural to an alligator?

After a search of our trip archives, we uncovered one photo from 2003, in the “Mermaid Store” in Orlando. It’s of a large adult alligator, not a baby, standing upright with its head sawed off and reattached at the neck to look forward, like a human.

Standing gator display.
Stuffed gator, Orlando, Florida (2003)

Twisted? Yes.

And it’s not hard to imagine that it might be seasonally outfitted with a Santa’s cap or Easter Bunny ears. With no visible price tag, it seemed more intended to accent the tacky atmosphere rather than to be sold as a piece of merchandise. And it may be long gone.

Are Florida bureaucrats proactively heading off an imagined future market of baby gators slaughtered to make souvenir water-skiers and thong-frollicking reptiles? Or are gator-humanoids already doing a brisk business in countless souvenir stores?

Let us know if you’ve seen any examples!

Sections: Rants, Souvenirs

Derek Costello: Hard-Working Master of Wax

Elvis Presley in wax.
Elvis 1972, the King in his less-flattering latter days.
You may not know Derek Costello, but if you’ve been to Niagara Falls you probably know his work. His prehistoric beasts are at Dinosaur Park Mini Golf. His wax celebrities are at Movieland. His historical figures are at the Niagara Wax Museum of History. His ghouls are at Castle Dracula and the Haunted House of Wax.

He’s also the artist behind the giant stainless steel water molecule outside Niagara Falls City Hall, built in 1967 when he was a city employee.

He drives around town in an electric car of his own design.

Derek Costello.
Derek Costello
“It’s a strange, strange business,” said Derek of his work sculpting famous people (and monsters). “You can never think you’re good,” he said. “One person looks at what you’ve done and says, ‘That’s wonderful!’ The next person looks at it and says, ‘Who’s that?'”

Part of the fun of visiting a wax museum is the right to critique the dummies of the famous, people that everyone knows (or thinks they do). Call it crowdsourcing or Tyranny of the Masses — Derek, who’s been in the business for over 50 years, understands it. But it doesn’t make his job any easier.

He once built a display for the film The Longest Yard starring Burt Reynolds, whose character was clean-shaven. “Nobody liked him,” said Derek. The museum owner made Derek put a mustache on Burt. “Then everybody loved him.”

Stainless steel water molecule.
Stainless steel water molecule.
The amount of labor involved, and the anonymity of the job, has made it difficult for Derek to find apprentices. “They’ve all either failed, died, or quit,” he said. “I don’t blame them. It’s a massive amount of work. It’s not as grandiose as doing famous artwork, even though the work has to be done as accurately and properly.”

(In a testament to Derek’s skill, the owner of the Niagara Wax Museum of History told us that Derek’s dummy of Marilyn Monroe had to be removed because too many people were groping it.)

Head of Marilyn Monroe
Head of Marilyn Monroe.
Derek told us that one of his unexpected side jobs is to track down old, retired celebrity dummies for resale, often to private collectors.

“These are wealthy people with these huge homes, and they’ve got them decorated with these figures,” said Derek. “They send me photos! They talk about them like they’re members of the family. It’s absolutely insane.”

“I don’t know how many times I’ve done E.T., Darth Vader, C3PO,” Derek said. “God knows where they all are now; I don’t think there are any in Niagara Falls any more. Somebody’s got them in their back yard or at the foot of their bed. Unbelievable.”

Sections: Canada
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Toby Fraley’s Secret Life of Robots: Silicon Homebodies

Everyday robots.If the word “robots” calls to mind a clanking metal horde bent on enslaving the human race, then Toby Fraley’s “The Secret Life of Robots” may cool your paranoia. Toby, whose art first came to our attention in 2011 with his storefront “Robot Repair Shop” in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, now presents “Secret Life” at Pittsburgh’s Space gallery (812 Liberty Ave.) through at least April 2014.

Toby’s 13 vignettes show robots as average, everyday Joes and Janes — who look a lot like staged advertising photos from the American 1950s (Toby spent 18 months getting the settings just right). Happy mom and dad robots celebrate their toddler’s first clanking steps; a nosy parent eavesdrops on a teen robot’s telephone call; a tiny elderly lady robot hooks a can of cat food with her umbrella. Toby only diverges from the mid-century Shangri-La in his final scene, where a dead robot’s ghost can be seen floating up and out of its bed.

Everyday robots.“I tried to humanize them, to tug at some heartstrings,” Toby told us, although he conceded that the death scene probably won’t prompt any calls from private collectors. “No one wants a dying robot in their home.”

The robots’ 1950s world comes partly from Tony’s artistic preference, and partly from the materials used to build the robots, mostly vintage thermoses, picnic coolers, and vacuum cleaners. Stamped steel and cast aluminum naturally lend themselves to robots. “You couldn’t build robots out of today’s products,” said Toby. “Everything today is plastic; UV light is going to destroy it. A robot needs to last a long time.”

Toby makes robots on commission as well as for public display (You can hire him to create one through his web site). This means that Toby always has a supply of robot parts on hand. “Ten years ago I never thought I’d own over 20 vintage vacuum cleaners. That sounds like something an insane person would do,” he said. “But you don’t know when you’ll see another, and I feel I have to stock up.

“If I don’t end up making robots the rest of my life,” he said, “I’ll have the most amazing yard sale ever.”

The Secret Life of Robots: at Space gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, PA, through April 27, 2014. W-Th 11-6, F-Sa 11-8, Su 11-5. Free.

Sections: Events
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