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The joy of canning.
The joy of canning.

Steinbeck's Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

Monterey, California

Steinbeck's Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum is an old school roadside attraction, largely unsullied by trendy tech or celebrity figures. Don't listen to pampered reviewers with their negative bleats of "Meh" and "Pricey!" Enter with the right attitude and you will be rewarded.

Your friendly greeter.
Your friendly greeter.

The wax museum features more than 100 historical figures, grouped in roughly chronological dioramas showing nearly 500 years of California history. Native Americans encounter explorers and Spanish missionaries, which transitions to scenes of Spanish colonization, then Mexican occupation, then the United States moving in. Some 20th century scenes are derived from what Steinbeck described in his novels.

Most of the exhibit appears to date from the late 1970s or so (we base this on the Robert Louis Stevenson scene referring to that author's Monterey stay, in 1879, as "about 100 years ago.").

The museum fills the building basement -- visitors enter by descending stairs rigged to play musical notes with each footfall. There are a few introductory talking dummies -- a bearded guy with animated eyeballs in an ill-fitting suit and mop of hair (promising "It's a doozy!"), an old salt fisherman, a seagull, and a John Steinbeck. Then visitors enter the main chamber.

Night in the wax bordello.
Night in the wax bordello.

The dioramas are arranged behind low, crusty wooden walls, with paper signs warning an alarm will trigger if any barrier is crossed (Seems like a recent concern, perhaps brought on by the figure fondling and selfies encouraged at other wax museums.). Visitors can snap pictures though.

A decent number of crude animatronic figures are in good repair, and make Steinbeck's Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum a bad robot lover's paradise. Visitors press a button to activate the next interlude of lights, sound and movement. A horse rears up, a Spanish guitarist slowly strums, a blacksmith mindlessly hammers, a hand cranks back and forth holding a whisky bottle. Steinbeck?

In the cannery scene, sardines whiz by female workers on a belt -- too fast -- a la Lucy in the candy factory. Monterey once touted "Sardine Capital of the World" as its claim to fame, so there are several nods to that period.

Uncooperative horse.
Uncooperative horse.

The museum's prerecorded audio varies in quality (the Native American "We are a peaceful people" monologue is better fidelity than later scenes). Ostensibly the narration is by "John Steinbeck." When you're alone, or if the attraction is sparsely attended, you can push buttons and listen to each scene in its entirety. When other visitors are ahead of you or behind you, audio may overlap and be harder to decipher. Towards the end, visitors who find themselves alone may tire of the history lesson and push several buttons to experience a multitasker's cacophony of Monterey milestones.

Bull vs. Bear fights.
Bull vs. Bear fights.

The museum sensationally promotes its "Bear vs. Bull" scene, which depicts a bull goring a dying bear, while another chained bear stands upright, roaring in unhappiness. In the background a spectator waves a little American flag.

Some scenes are a considerable distance from the crowd suppression barriers, as if the attraction's walk-through path had been rerouted at some point, but dioramas were left in distant corners. Look way over there, in the background! Isn't that Steinbeck drinking in a bar? Is that a murdered girl in an alley?

It generates an amusing tension for us as observers -- did we miss a turn? Coupled with the dodgy voice-overs and acoustics, it eerily creates a bustling Cannery Row time smear. A few figures may have lost hands or tilted out of seats along the way, but that just adds to the charm.

Don't get us wrong -- this is all great. The proprietors shouldn't do much more than dust, replace light bulbs, and keep the robots operating. We hope it sticks around exactly like this for the next 500 years. [Update: It didn't stick around; closed in 2023]

Bonus: Look for the big "I'm in a sardine can" photo op stored near the exit.

Steinbeck's Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum


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