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

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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2014: Giant Pegasus And Revolutionary Robots

Supersonic sculpture.
Supersonic sculpture, New York World's Fair

Aside from the 50th anniversary of the New York World’s Fair and the enshrinement of the Flying Paper Boy of the Guadalupes, what do we have to look forward to in 2014?

There’s quite a bit. For example: an 11-story-tall statue of winged Pegasus killing a dragon (to be built in Miami) and a perfect replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall — populated by robots (To open in South Dakota, which already has a great robot attraction).

Promises, promises. They’re cheap, and a quick review from last year at this time reveals that of twelve promised attractions for 2013, five did not arrive. Those five now insist that their debut will happen in 2014 — which sounds suspiciously like the billboard that promises “only two more miles” to a cave, but in fact only marks the distance to the next turn, where you find another billboard.

Still, opening a Roadside-worthy wonder is never easy, and we hope that attractions such as Slotzilla — a giant slot machine that spits out people on a zip line — have only been delayed to make them even more wonderful.

Saddam Hussein sink.
Saddam Hussein's sink.
As for 2014, we’re eagerly awaiting the debut of the Waste Pro Garbage Truck Museum (Florida); the Morbid Anatomy Museum (New York); a life-size statue of Jumbo the Elephant (Massachusetts); and the Space Shuttle “Independence,” a walk-thru attraction bolted to the top of a 747 (Texas).

Fans of war booty will appreciate the Sink of Saddam Hussein, which is already in the Old Court House Museum (Mississippi), although its directors haven’t yet decided if they want to display the sink or simply use it in the ladies’ washroom. We’ve let the curator know what we think about that.

Several attractions currently in stasis are scheduled to kick out of their cocoons in 2014, such as the Wichita Troll, the Rocky and Bullwinkle statue, the World’s Tallest Grandfather Clock, and the World’s Largest Lincoln — which, at 72 feet tall, is difficult to keep under wraps. The Liberace Museum has been promised a return engagement in a somewhat reduced space, and work is already underway to reopen Holy Land USA as an attraction, possibly as early as this summer.

Baby toy anticipating 2014.Will 2014 be the year that the Palace of Depression finally gets finished? Will the World’s Largest Thermometer get switched back on? Will the Recycled Roadrunner (currently in its builder’s back yard) find a new public home?

There are rumblings that all of these may happen — and of course many attractions-in-waiting simply fly under the radar.

Places like Tank Town USA didn’t even exist this time last year, and we expect that many similar unforeseen Roadside marvels lie ready to surprise us in 2014.

Gas up!

Sections: Rants, Trends
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Welcome Back Velveteria, The Museum Of Velvet Art

Caren and Carl at Velveteria.
Caren and Carl at Velveteria.

After four years wandering in the wilderness, Velveteria has reached the Promised Land: downtown Los Angeles, California.

The world’s most wonderful museum of velvet paintings, Velveteria was for years the cultural apex of the weird art scene in Portland, Oregon. But founders Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson closed in early 2010, packed their 3,000+ paintings into five trucks, and headed to southern California, exact destination unknown.

“I wanted to sit on a beach after all those rainy years in Portland,” said Carl. He and Caren looked into reopening Velveteria in Palm Springs (“But the summer’s too brutal,” Carl said), Santa Barbara (“It’s beautiful there, but kinda snooty”), and Hollywood (“It’s magnet for every nutcase in the world”).

Then Carl had an epiphany. “I said, ‘We don’t want to be on the outskirts. We want to be in the center of everything.’” So he and Caren looked in the old downtown section of the city, and fell in love with an empty Chinatown building that appealed to their DIY spirit. “It hadn’t been open for years, there was a dead rat on the floor, there was goose grease on the ceiling from the restaurant that was there 30 years ago,” said Carl. “We said, ‘This is perfect.’”

After much cleaning and remodeling, Velveteria reopened on December 11, 2013, to a world that had certainly missed it.

The new Velveteria, in addition to its main gallery, has theme spaces such as a Black Light Room, a Naked Lady Room (with pink walls), the Hall of Elvis, and a Secret Room that can be unlocked on request and whose art must remain a mystery (One of its paintings is of Anderson Cooper in a thong). The Velvet Heaven gallery features portraits of dead celebrities, while The Unicorn Garden of Good and Evil contrasts pink and white unicorns on one side with all-black “Evil-corns” on the other. “We’ve added a lot,” said Carl, who guessed the number of paintings displayed at 420. “That’s one of the reasons why we had to reopen.”

Velvet painting

Carl also dropped a surprising bombshell: every visitor to the new Velveteria can, for a sliding fee, order his or her own custom velvet painting. “I’ve got artists all over,” said Carl. “Give us a picture, any image. We can get it put on velvet for you.”

Probably no artist’s vision can top Velveteria’s portraits of Bat Boy or of Marshall “Heaven’s Gate” Applewhite, but you may want to give it some thought before you visit.

Sections: Attraction News

Flick’s Lick: Triple Dog Dare for Hammond, IN

Fans of the film A Christmas Story have had only one place to go for year-round pilgrimages: the house seen in the movie, which is in Cleveland, Ohio (There’s also this unintentional tribute). However, the town where the events in the film really took place was Hammond, Indiana. It felt overlooked. It wanted its share of an enduring holiday touchstone.

Christmas Story pole licker.Hammond has a guy who knows a good idea can grab you and not let go. That guy is Bill Wellman, and that idea is a bronze boy with his tongue stuck to a flag pole.

Bill was born in 1923, has an unlimited amount of pep, and would be roughly the same age as the film’s protagonist Ralphie (maybe a few years older). He’s also vice-chairman of the Hammond-area visitors bureau. When the 30th anniversary of the film arrived in 2013 he told his younger board members, “We need a photo op.”

It was unveiled on October 29: a life-size bronze statue of a scene in the film where Flick, Ralphie’s friend, gets his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole at Warren G. Harding Elementary School, the result of a “triple dog dare.”

Christmas Story pole licker.
Scott Schwartz and sculptor Oscar Leon.
On hand for the unveiling outside of Hammond’s Indiana Welcome Center was the actor who played Flick, Scott Schwartz, and the statue’s sculptor, Oscar Leon. The statue was revealed by dignitaries (including Bill) using crowbars to pry open a crate stenciled “Fragile” and then pulling out handfuls of straw, familiar references to anyone who’s seen the film.

All of this, said Bill, was part of his goal to “make it about show business.” Bill, whose father in 1948 opened a Western-themed bar in Indiana by riding a horse into it, was raised to appreciate the value of showmanship. Bill was part of the team that brought The John Dillinger Museum to the same Welcome Center. And in 2012 Bill convinced the town of Valparaiso, Indiana — where he lives — to install a statue of Orville Redenbacher, its hometown popcorn king.

“I told our young mayor, ‘What we need is a photo op,’” said Bill, who cited a study that showed that Orville was “95 percent recognizable, just like Colonel Sanders in his prime.” Bill also said that corporate giant ConAgra Foods granted permission for the statue only on the condition that it contain no references to popcorn. “They said we could have Orville, but we couldn’t have popcorn,” said Bill. “I’m not sure what their logic was, but we got a first class statue!”

Christmas Story pole licker.For the new statue in Hammond, Bill said he knew from the start that Flick had to be its subject. “It’s gotta be Flick and it’s gotta be first class,” Bill said he told his fellow board members (Hammond made certain to use the same artist who had sculpted Orville).

Although Bill himself has never stuck his tongue to a flagpole (“I was smart enough to know better”) he knew of many boys who had.

Which raises the question: what about people visiting the statue? Hammond does have cold winters and the flagpole is made of real metal (The one used in the film was stick-resistant plastic). Bill said he has encouraged the Welcome Center to post a sign, “If You Lick You Will Stick,” or at least to attach a piece of wood to the pole so that visitors who dare to imitate Flick will leave with their skin intact.

(Bureau spokeswoman Nicki Mackowski-Gladstone told us that Hammond will do what it can to discourage creating a saliva-centric attraction such as The Gum Wall of Seattle.)

And what of the real flagpole and Warren G. Harding Elementary School? They’re both long gone, but true fans can visit the empty lot where they stood — it’s only 2.5 miles northeast of the Flick statue, on the north side of Cleveland Street just west of Parrish Ave. Bill said that there’s no historical marker at the site, but Hammond was thinking of making one.

Sections: Statues
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Brawny Men of San Francisco Bay

Bruce Kennedy and Cowboy.
Bruce Kennedy and Cowboy

“The problem is that it doesn’t fit in his hands… you’d have to break the thumb off,” laments Bruce Kennedy, as we ponder his wondrous and mysterious giant ax.

The wall-mounted prop is a tool denied its intended grip in the hands of a 20-ft. tall fiberglass statue named “Big Mike,” a Bunyan-style Muffler Man.

Bruce is a collector of unique sculptures, and he also owns a fabrication business. We’re thrilled about that, because he found space on his Hayward, California property to install Big Mike and another Muffler Man in 2013.

And he wants more.

Big Mike.
Big Mike

Big Mike had been an unofficial landmark in Hayward — one of the first generation of Muffler Men, dating from around 1966, and had been used to advertise a succession of businesses along Mission Avenue. By 2011, the last business had closed, the Muffler Man disappeared, and local citizens panicked.

Uh, the panic part may be just in our own heads…but they noticed he was gone.

Hayward-without-Big-Mike was only a temporary calamity. In early 2013 the bearded giant was back, now in the fenced yard of Bell Plastics. And by late summer 2013 another Muffler Man, a cowboy, had been installed at the same location.

Bruce read about the cowboy on — an owner in Missouri had it in storage for over ten years, for a purpose never fulfilled, and was ready to release it back into the general population.

Cowboy, Hayward, California
Bruce paid for the figure and the hefty transport costs cross-country, only to discover on arrival the statue was in extremely poor condition.

“There were spider web cracks all over the fiberglass,” he said, and crushed sections. Twelve years in storage had not been kind to the retired gunslinger.

But Bruce was already committed to repairing and refurbishing the statue for public display. The restoration was executed by a fiberglass artisan who normally does Christmas and holiday work, so an off-season project was ideal for his schedule and Bruce’s budget.

The fiberglass repair was followed by a complete paint makeover. Muffler Men are often displayed with rudimentary painted eyes and lips, and perhaps some cheek rouge, but Bruce thinks his artist brought it to a whole new level. The cowboy has intricate facial features and fancy western duds, including snaps and buttons.

Conspicuously, the two giants have not been erected side-by-side. “We’re close to San Francisco,” Bruce said, with all that may or may not imply.

Chiefly though, Bruce prefers to avoid raising the temperature of any civic entities which might regard his little/big hobby unfavorably. For example, he’s commissioned an excellent horned demon skull to substitute for Big Mike’s head. Visitors will see it throughout the month of October. However, it’s not illuminated at night. Best to stay on the correct side of that line between landmark and eyesore…

Oriental items.Bruce collects other things, chiefly discovered via eBay. Scattered around his offices are plexiglass display cases containing oriental art and sculptures. His personal office is a clutter of papers and interesting figurines. An 8-ft. tall fiberglass Indian warrior stands in the entrance room to Bruce’s offices. It’s a new acquisition, purchased on eBay from a seller in San Diego. He showed us an accessory bear tooth necklace and knife that will eventually be attached. For now, it just dominates the room, in front of the ax.

Brave and ax.
Indian warrior and ax.

The ax was not an eBay purchase — it was actually an anonymous donation. A story in the paper informed locals about Big Mike’s whereabouts, and one morning soon after Bruce noticed a big package leaning on the fence in the bushes. There was a note: “For Big Mike.” The package contained an ax with a wood handle and fake ax head. “B.M.” was carved into the handle heel.

Bruce still has no idea about the identity of Big Mike’s mystery benefactor.

Sections: Places, Statues
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