Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Time can move slow as molasses in the old resort town of Hot Springs, but the smartest tourist attractions turn this leisurely metabolism to their advantage. Take the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum, suspended in an amber that brilliantly preserves a classic collection of yore. The first hint is just inside the front door, where a grinning President Jimmy Carter stands at the bottom of a motionless escalator. At the top, silently forgiving all who run too fast up the steps, hangs Jesus on the cross.
According to museum manager Tammy Rowan, visitors used to ride the escalator -- the oldest in Arkansas, she said -- up the sweeping "Stairway of Stars." But its motor conked out during a 2009 flood, and modern safety codes prevent its revival. Now visitors walk up the stairs next to the frozen escalator with its time capsule cargo of celebrities, including Liz Taylor, Clark Gable, Louis Armstrong, and, at the top, just below Jesus, Pope John Paul II.
Josephine Tussaud was Madame Tussaud's great-great-granddaughter. Her wax museum has no connection to Madame's super-slick international chain, and that's fine with us. It's a well-maintained attraction, almost entirely populated with its original dummies from 1971. Even its souvenir guidebook dates back 40+ years, with references to newsreels, "refrigerated air conditioning," and "mod" fashion. Tammy apologized for the dated material, but we thought it was super that it was still for sale.
The museum is a reminder of how great wax museums used to be -- before they got all touchy-feely -- and of what was considered wax-worthy at the dawn of the 1970s. In Hot Springs, President Nixon still shakes hands with British royalty, preserving an otherwise forgotten event from 1969. Grown-up Princess Di stands beside Prince Charles and Tricky Dick, obviously a later addition, since she was just eight years old at the time.
Jack, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy have their own diorama around the corner; Jackie's there as well. A stroll in the opposite direction leads to a helmetless Neil Armstrong on the surface of what is evidently a moon with breathable air. Nearby are comparatively recent arrivals, the Clintons and Barack Obama. Ronald Reagan used to lurk there too, said Tammy, but the previous owners sold him for "a hunk of money" to a wealthy fan.
The museum's 100+ well-crafted figures are separated into "worlds." There are galleries such as Biblical scenes, a "Hall of Battles," and movie monsters (hosted by an eerily lit Alfred Hitchcock). As with all Old School wax museums, it seems perfectly natural to have reverent Christian tableaus only a few feet away from goggle-eyed fairy tale creatures and scenes of medieval torture.
Further enriching the mix is the building itself, which was previously The Southern Club, Hot Springs' most lavish casino (the escalator dates from that time). The current museum management celebrates its storied history with displays scattered throughout the museum and in two converted storage roooms. Visitors to the World of Make-Believe are greeted with the odd sight of a wall-sized photo of the club's marquee (It hosted stars such as Phyllis Diller and Eddie "Green Acres" Albert). One of the Southern Club's original bathrooms has been preserved as an exhibit, with its marble stalls and antique toilet.
A room at the back of the museum is packed with displays of casino dice, cards, and slot machines, and another room offers business minutiae: supply orders, news clippings, and correspondence between long dead characters. A grinning Al Capone dummy, cigar in mouth, stands with a fistful of $10 chips at a Southern Club blackjack table.
The rear of the building abuts a sheer rock face. A glass wall reveals the landslide that took out the back of the casino in the early 1960s (another flood); you can still see the safe that was dug out, containing a reported $5 million in cash.
For an extra dollar, Tammy lets visitors behind a fake wall in the men's bathroom into a secret tunnel. It was the escape route taken by gangsters whenever the casino was raided by the cops.
There's no Hitler dummy at Josephine Tussaud, but a Napoleon lurks near the ceiling of one room, and there's an unexpected tableau of U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee on opposite sides of a tent that spins while music plays "Anchors Aweigh." For years the museum had a rubble-strewn 9/11 diorama in one of its front windows, but it was retired in 2012. The rescue worker dummy was former Bonanza star Lorne Greene, another 1971 original. "He fit the fireman's suit," said Tammy.