Waning Wax: Cave City and Hollywood
In this era of atoms to bits, when the images and recollections of our past are transformed into zeros and ones, residing encoded on plastic strips and disks, and indecipherable -- meaningless -- without the help of machines and electricity, we lose control over our own memories. As this happens, we turn our back to the physical materials we once manipulated to aid our recall and parse the flood of what was once important, once dear, once was. We refer, of course, to wax.
Wax figures -- life-sized, genuinely three-dimensional representations of the most celebrated and important people of History and Hollywood -- have become like the material they are created from, fugitive and gummy. They are less visible on the vacationscape, dismissed as clumsy, hard to maintain and old-fashioned. No more can an author publish a book like "America In Wax" (Crown, 1977; three thumbs up). No more can you produce horror movies set at the haunted waxworks in the bad part of town. Wax just doesn't belong in today's on demand, full-motion, broadband world. At a recent auction, Babe Ruth's bat went for $107,000, while Babe in wax only brought $11,500.
Still, a dwindling number of museums have the goods in wax, protecting them like monks once protected the written word. Few new wax figures get made, and the ones you see today are an odd collection of bugs in amber. You can laugh, and say that wax figures will never be important again. Well, in the 1300's, they were laughing the same way about literacy.
We visited two of our pet wax museums, thousands of miles apart, to see how the ancient craft was faring.
At the Mammoth Cave Wax Museum in Cave City, the same collection of personalities from our first visit in 1985 remain, with no discernible additions or deletions. Lighting pots up and down to draw the audience along a walk, while a bland but fast-talking narrator keeps the ball rolling past Babe Ruth and Will Rogers, cowboys and Indians, wild west bank robbers. In Abe Lincoln's room, Abe talks to his crazy wife while a black butler, free but still servile, holds out some tea for her on a platter. On the opposite side of the otherwise empty room, a soused General Grant sits alone, fist clenched, wondering if this is what he risked his life for.
In the red bordello of great inventors, Edison and Henry Ford listen to Edison's phonograph and swill whiskey. In the old country store of 19th century novelists, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson play checkers. At the The Last Supper, everyone stops while the narrator tells us about what Leonardo meant when he painted the two-dimensional version.
The celebrity room is notably absent of today's stars -- All three Marx Brothers are here, representatives of the talkies, with Valentino, Chaplin and either Carole Lombard or a very toothy Gretta Garbo. And that's it.
Next, in the Change Agents of the Early '60s Room, Billy Graham sits by himself, smiling oddly, while across the room, Martin Luther King and MarionAnderson, Robert Kennedy and Pope Pius XII all stare at him with concern.
In the oval office tableau, we can intuit the glory days of wax/tourism interaction. JFK and LBJ are there, stage left, with their wives. The early '60s were obviously a time of wax bonanza, to be able to throw away money on a Lady Bird. Still sitting behind the First Desk is Richard Nixon. Stage right are Wilson, Ford, Carter. Carter is the last president portrayed (the sitting president when "America In Wax" was published). No Clinton, okay . . . but no Reagan either?
Our favorite room is the " Sitting Room of All Other Figures We Own." Einstein and Steinmetz hang together in easy chairs, with Patton playing the white pieces in a game of chess. Walt Disney stands and grins out through the glass -- so does George Washington Carver. On the far side, Neil Armstrong holds out a moon rock to Sammy Davis, Jr. The narrator talks of Sammy as though he were still alive.
The last figure is that of Las Vegas Elvis. A female wax fan runs at him. She is not identified, but looks like she could have at one time been Dolly Parton. (Update April 2006 from tipster Jeff W.: the woman in the last display is indeed Dolly Parton, who has, according to the audio narration, "Already made her motion picture debut" and is "well on her way to being a star.")
The place is not that expensive, and you get some great postcards (Wax Davy Crockett Holding A Small Log). But it does have a bit of a depressing pall, maybe because it's pretty dark in there.
At The Hollywood Wax Museum right on Hollywood Boulevard, admission is a little steeper, and there are no postcards, but you can get a discount admission to the Believe It Or Not Museum across the street.
As you might expect, the emphasis here is on entertainers, though it looks like they also ran out of the desire and money to keep the place current, and the only newish figures seem paid for by studios looking for some cheap publicity. So Sly Stallone is here, but not as Rocky or Rambo -- but suspended from a rope, advertising Cliffhanger. A wax Sharon Stone is not sitting opened-legged, in a scene from Basic Instinct, but as her character from The Quick and The Dead, in a western set she shares with Cantinflas. When we were there, an Austin Powers ended the tour -- a figure from several years ago brought out for a successful sequel.
TV shows from the past are represented, like M.A.S.H. (though they give Gary "Radar" Burghoff two normal hands) and Happy Days. Our favorite set up is that for Baywatch, featuring a hairy-chested David Hasselhoff and a curvy Pamela Anderson. They both have a nice spray tan applied to them. They have a Last Supper, too, and it offers the only place to sit down and ponder.
Hollywood's Where Can We Put Everyone? Room is a tinselly stage with a staircase holding (and ranking?) celebrities on each step. Robert Goulet is below Eddie Murphy and Sammy, who are both below Barbra Streisand, at the top. Celia Cruz and a bug-eyed Rodney Dangerfield hang off to one side.
The waxmasters at Hollywood have tried to add an extra layer of realism with more wax wrinkles and less gross characterizations, but it only works about half the time. They have a wax Reagan (no Bush or Clinton), standing between Washington and Lincoln, but the face looks oily and puckered, not dry and puckered like when he was in office.
The Hollywood Wax Museum works a little better than the one at Mammoth Cave, if only because Hollywood Blvd. is so full of its own waxy creatures that you can see for free. And Hollywood's Wax Museum is smack in the middle of The Blvd's great and horrible collection of souvenir, underwear, and food-on-a-stick stores that stretch for blocks in either direction.