Potter's Wax Museum
St. Augustine, Florida
Everyone in St. Augustine knew that George Leonard Potter was kind of a nut. Maybe he got it from his father, a rich lawyer, who was famous for buying the Connecticut Pavilion at the 1904 World's Fair, shipping it in box cars to Lafayette, Indiana, and reassembling it as the Potter family mansion.
George's family had a vacation home in Florida. He was fascinated by history, and especially St. Augustine, the self-proclaimed "Oldest City in America." According to local lore, he was also smitten when he traveled to England and toured Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.
Dad never trusted George with money. But then George's dad, mom, and wife all died within a few years of each other. George, who was generally thought to be a skinflint, decided to indulge his fantasy. He ordered hundreds of top-of-the-line custom-made wax dummies from London, had them dressed in the finest outfits by costumers of the Royal Theatre, and in 1948 opened his dream attraction, Potter's International Hall of Fame, in St. Augustine.
Press clippings from the time report that George flew dummies across the Atlantic in airline seats (There are also stories that he warehoused them in the mansion garage in Lafayette). Scenes from the 1953 Vincent Price film House of Wax were reportedly filmed at Potter's. George wrote a 400-page guidebook detailing the history of every dummy in his Hall of Fame, and wrote letters-to-the-editor demanding the abolishment of unions and income taxes. He expected his tour guides -- he called them "historians" -- to know every fact about every dummy (He would show up unannounced from Indiana for spot inspections).
By the end of the 1970s George had several hundred dummies on display in an impressive two-story building. It was the second largest wax museum in the world.
Then George died. His son, freed from his father's obsession, started selling the dummies.
That should have been the end of George's attraction. But his sympathetic curator, Dottie White, bought 150 of the dummies and reopened the museum in a much smaller, three-room space, calling it Potter's House of Wax. New figures were added, two or three a year, mostly celebrities. The place had the aesthetic of a warehouse -- dummies crammed together in mass displays -- far from the elegant period tableaus of Potter's International Hall of Fame. But the core of the collection had been saved.
In 2014 the museum changed hands again. It was moved into another attraction, the Authentic Old Drug Store, with more space and its own art director. The results suggest a brighter future for George Potter's wax progeny.
Herman Munster, George Washington, and Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn are the dummies that first greet visitors, conveying the smorgasbord of celebrity and history that lies within. Unlike most modern-day wax museums, Potter's still relies heavily on historical figures.
A hall of Tudors and Elizabethans retains the old International Hall of Fame elegance; a hall of World War II heroes and villains sticks Josef Stalin with the bad guys. Hitler, hidden for years because his dummy kept being attacked, is again on display, but without regalia or swastikas. In the "Famous Authors" exhibit, Mark Twain is bookended by the disembodied heads of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Queen Victoria's crown seems entirely too small for her noggin.
A lengthy showcase of famous heads suggests the resources at Potter's disposal: Sandra Bullock, Moses, the cast of Seinfeld, a two-faced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a head simply labeled "Burnt Guy - Horror Victim." The selection of who is exhibited and who is just a head seems capricious; Princess Di and The Phantom Menace get precious floor space while Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger are stuck on shelves with the likes of Talleyrand and Pope John XXIII.
Playing the "I'd never have him in my wax museum" game is part of the fun of visiting Potter's, and it wouldn't have been possible when George was running the show. In that respect Potter's modern diversity is an improvement over the attraction in its Golden Age. Probably no museum in America has the dummy inventory of Potter's (we saw Rambo only a few steps away from Mozart) and we would encourage further discombobulation.
Keep mixing it up, Potter's! Your treasure of wax gold can be mined for decades to come.