Since he took over as general manager for the new owners of Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park five months ago, Ronald Fong has projected nothing but executive aplomb.
This aura of calm, however, seems to fly in the face of Movieland's recent history. The wax museum's attendance plummeted even lower last year--to 440,000 from its 1976 high of 1 million--and the tourist-attraction industry in general, the Disney parks included, remains shaken by increased competition and fiscal uncertainty.
Nevertheless, Fong, whose small San Francisco firm last April announced the purchase of the 23-year-old Movieland for $5.3 million from the Six Flags conglomerate, depicts the situation as downright hopeful.
"We bought Movieland because it's still a choice piece of property and we believe we can turn things around. Attendance is already running at a better clip than this time last summer," said the 39-year-old Fong, a partner in the F & P Operations firm headed by his father.
"We know Movieland isn't one of the big boys. We can't compete head to head with Disneyland or Knott's (Berry Farm, which is located nearby on Beach Boulevard). But we believe there will always be a place on the tourist circuit for our kind of attraction."
However, Fong and other waxworks entrepreneurs admit that their kind of museum show --which dates back to the 18th Century and is based on the ancient art of beeswax sculpting --is not a business with an especially vast appeal.
According to Fong, in the early 1970s, when modern full-scale wax museums were the most numerous, there were no more than 30 major waxworks in the world, including the most famous of all, Madame Tussaud's in London. The number of such major museums today is down to about 15, he said.
Since Movieland's sister complex, the Stars Hall of Fame in Orlando, Fla., was shut down last year by Six Flags, Movieland in Buena Park is considered the only big waxworks that is devoted wholly to movie, television and recording stars.
The Fong family's entry into the field came rather casually 21 years ago. Ronald's father, Thomas, a successful jeweler in San Francisco's Chinatown, and his partners had purchased a vacant warehouse at Fisherman's Wharf and were casting about for tenants.
"My father met this man who had run a small wax museum at the Seattle world's fair--about 50 figures, the usual mixture of historical and movie-star people," recalled Ronald. "My father decided to bring that whole attraction to our warehouse. He figured it would fit in well with the whole tourist atmosphere of the wharf."
The waxworks opened at the wharf site in 1964, but the show lasted only three months. "It turned out this guy (waxworks operator) was having tax problems with Canadian authorities, and the next thing we knew, he left, taking his figures with him," said Ronald.
Sold on the wax museum concept, Thomas Fong went straight to Tussaud's for help. "Tussaud's had just started a subsidiary that made and sold figures to other operators," said Ronald. "We ordered 150 of them--at $900 apiece --and we were back in business."
The San Francisco operation, called the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, now has 270 figures --including political and religious celebrities and a King Tut set--and its own wax-sculpting staff.
The Fong family has since added side attractions at the wharf site, including an "Enchanted World of Old San Francisco," complete with mini-cable car ride, fun house and gift shops. (Attendance at the San Francisco complex runs about 300,000 a year.)
In Movieland, F & P has taken over a venture that has had its share of glories and pratfalls.
Opened in 1962 at a cost of $1.5 million by movie-buff entrepreneur Allen Parkinson, Movieland had a glittering send-off. The museum, then offering 60 movie-star figures, was dedicated by a blue-ribbon Hollywood contingent headed by the screen's dowager queen, Mary Pickford.
Over the next decade, Movieland flourished with the rest of the theme-attraction industry. By 1973, three years after Six Flags bought the complex, Movieland offered more than 100 figures and dozens of movie and television sets. Its success led to the opening of Six Flags' copycat enterprise, the Stars Hall of Fame.
By the 1980s, however, the national recession and the increasing competition from other entertainment forms had sent many theme attractions, including Disneyland, into an attendance tailspin. At Movieland itself, turnstile totals tumbled from a high of 1 million in 1976 to 800,000 in 1981 and 440,000 in 1984. And early last year, Six Flags sent the word out: it wanted to sell the museum.