Natural Bridge Wax Museum
Natural Bridge, Virginia
The waxy buildup at Natural Bridge Wax Museum has been accumulating for some time.
The attraction is actually two for the price of one: a "Factory Tour" in the basement, and the finished wax displays in the museum above. It's in the factory that the passing decades instantly become apparent, as you enter through a subterranean hallway lit with porno-purple lights and lined with hundreds of wax heads of the famous and forgotten. It's a nightmarish introduction, since the heads have no hair or eyeballs and are wrapped in clear plastic bags displayed behind wire mesh. Instructive, too; we never realized that George Bush, Melvin Purvis, and Mad Anthony Wayne looked so much alike without eyes or hair.
The factory was abandoned when we visited; no people, just TV monitors to guide us through the displays of body parts being assembled by wax dummies in artist smocks. One video tutorial featured an improvised narration from the point of view of a dummy. "Easy! Watch my vital organs!" "Oh! They're giving me skin!" "Back into the oven I go!" One of the wax artisans had the head of no-longer-newsworthy presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. We imagine reporters from Washington, DC, using Natural Bridge Wax Museum as a barometer of political vitality; how much longer before Al Gore and John McCain end up in its basement?
Upstairs, the museum's dioramas mix regional lore with occasional nods to the Bible. Visitors enter at the Garden of Eden, then encounter an Indian either frozen in horror at the instant of falling off the Natural Bridge, or emotionally imploring the Great Spirit to inflict a similar fate on his foes. George Washington makes an appearance chiseling his initials into the Bridge's underpass (it's not graffiti -- it's history!), and so do local characters William "Big Foot" Wallace and Archibald "Bar" Tolley, the latter locked in a death battle at the Bridge with an angry bear (Tolley wins).
Hey, lots of things have happened at Natural Bridge. One display revels in wacky local moonshiners, another depicts a somber meeting of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. Yet another places Thomas Jefferson and all seven other Virginia Presidents in the same nearby 19th century tavern, a time paradox that seems to have left Jefferson woozy. Big Foot Wallace is in the tavern too, yet another efficient use of the museum's extra dummies.
The attraction concludes with a sound-and-light extravaganza combining Leonardo da Vinci, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion. For our entertainment dollar, however, the museum's best display is its penultimate, a gathering of generations of wax bigwigs on the front porch of the Natural Bridge Hotel (Which burned down in 1963, so this porch must be its heavenly double). Henry Clay, Will Rogers, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Andrew Jackson watch Laurel and Hardy play checkers, while Presidents Eisenhower and Truman carry on a conversation flanked by Presidents Kennedy and McKinley. Eleanor pushes FDR in his wheelchair; Gen. George C. Marshall bows respectfully. George W. Bush looks drunk.
Most of the characters either have signs or nametags to identify them for visitors too young to remember Bill Clinton or too visually literal to recognize the grinning dummy in the corner as Ronald Reagan. This is the South, so all of the dummies have their backs to Abe Lincoln, who's stuck in the shadows.
President and First Lady Obama watch the party from a flag-draped balcony across the room. Despite such contemporary touches, however, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum has the feel of a place that was probably much the same 50 years ago, when there were living people in the basement and the Daniel Boone dummy didn't need a nametag.