National Presidential Wax Museum
Keystone, South Dakota
James Buchanan. Rutherford B. Hayes. Just two of America's real-life waxen Presidents. They and many others have left office without leaving a lasting impression on the public mind.
That's why it's important to have the National Presidential Wax Museum. It is permanent history: bricks and mortar -- and wax. When Wikipedia goes into receivership and the History Channel finally becomes nothing but shows about pawn shops, this attraction will be our presidential Knowledge Bank.
It opened during the Nixon years as the Parade of Presidents Wax Museum, a showcase for Katherine Stubergh Keller, "America's No. 1 wax sculptress." She made the Presidents while her husband Tom ran the museum. When she died, the museum went out of business -- but its location, in the middle of prime Presidential head territory, was too good to stand idle. The attraction reopened in 2001 with new owners, a new name, and a new exterior. Inside, it's pretty much just as the Kellers left it.
The genius of the National Presidential Wax Museum is that each President's life has been compressed into a single diorama -- the one key thing that you need to know. George Washington? He approved Betsy Ross's new flag. James Madison? He hosted parties with his glamorous wife. Grover Cleveland got married in the White House; Teddy Roosevelt relaxed underneath skins of the animals that he shot. Superficial? Sure -- but where would our Presidents be without ceremony and wives? Where would America be without guns and a flag?
Several Presidents are best known for being murdered while in office, but there are no assassination dioramas in the museum. The Kellers were tactful. Their Lyndon Johnson display, for example, recreates a famous photo of LBJ being sworn in on Air Force One, but left out the blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy. The First Widow was added to the scene only recently -- by Ms Keller's assistant -- and she bears a vague resemblance to 21st century Michael Jackson, with stringy hair and a puffy face that looks as if she's been crying about something.
Despite the Keller's earnest efforts, some modern Presidents evidently did nothing worth remembering. Jimmy Carter simply stands alone, as does George Bush Sr, who grimaces as if he's swallowing a golf ball. Bill Clinton is honored for playing a red, white, and blue saxophone in the Oval Office. Poor grinning Gerald Ford doesn't even get his own display: he's just one of a gallery of unelected Presidents, along with four 19th century nobodies that can't even be identified without their name plates.
Our favorite exhibits are those that look the least presidential. Dick Nixon leans forward like a game show host as he talks to the Apollo moon men, who can't go anywhere, stuck in their lunar germ quarantine chamber. Andrew Jackson hangs out with swashbuckling pirate Jean Lafitte. Calvin Coolidge, in cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, dedicates Mount Rushmore (even though it wasn't finished until years after he was dead). These odd tableaux make it a challenge to distinguish the Presidents from the merely famous people who are also on exhibit here, such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas Edison. Can you pick out the President in the "Founding of the United Nations" diorama? If you guess Eleanor Roosevelt, you're wrong.
The most interesting of the newer displays in the museum involve George W. Bush. In the entryway, a scowling Al Gore points accusingly at a befuddled-looking Dubya, recreating "an extraordinary election that was too close to call." On the wall behind them are framed photos of their heads as they were made. Wax museums are always proud of their heads, and a separate display notes that the presidential noggins here are carefully put away during the winter.
The recreation of Ground Zero at the World Trade Center is a crowd-pleaser. GWB whispers in the ear of a firefighter as slides of 9/11 flash on several surrounding video screens, interspersed with inspirational axioms such as "The terrorists didn't weaken us -- they made us stronger." Visitors can pose for snapshots in front of this diorama as if they were standing on the smoking rubble with the President. When we visited, we helped a number of people to do just that.
A visit to the National Presidential Wax Museum is more fun than a history textbook, and more mysterious and nuanced than an Oliver Stone film. Why is William Taft posed standing next to a solitary telephone? [Guess: During Taft's presidency, AT&T began their vision of universal service by buying up and/or crushing little phone companies that had weezed on their expired patents] Why does JFK have a coconut on his desk? [Guess: A souvenir from his WWII island days after his PT 109 sank.]