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The midnight hour, and Tut's a sellout

For procrastinators, partyers and families alike, early morning is a good time to see the boy king's treasures.

November 21, 2005|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

If the Los Angeles County Museum of Art threw its doors open around-the-clock to accommodate last-minute visitors to its pricey but popular King Tut show, who would show up at 2 a.m. on the last day?

The answer: Robert Boggs, 26, of Torrance. At that wee hour, Boggs stood in solemn admiration before a gray granite sculpture of Tuthmosis IV and his mother. Tuthmosis wore the usual ancient Egyptian get-up. Boggs wore a black cardboard top hat bearing the words "DEAD MAN WALKING."

"This is my bachelor party," he said in a respectful whisper. "It's all been a huge surprise."

He was the only apparent groom-to-be in the house, but Boggs and his fellow revelers were far from alone. At an hour when most bar-hoppers are beginning to contemplate vomiting or a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's, hundreds of eleventh-hour browsers had paid $30 each to fill the museum galleries, surrounding the show's 120 objects with drowsy, distracted curiosity and wearing everything from clubbing togs to unbuttoned baseball jerseys.

Demand for spots was so great in the run-up to the show's closing -- scheduled for late Sunday night -- that LACMA officials abandoned their plans to limit middle-of-the-night crowds to 100 per hour, and no walk-up tickets were available.

Despite the steep prices -- highest ever regular admission for an art show at an American museum -- total attendance at LACMA is expected to reach 900,000.

"Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," which began in June, is the show's first stop in the U.S. The treasures and trinkets travel next to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where they'll spend the winter. LACMA's leaders, meanwhile, will be deciding what to do with their newly plump pocketbook.

Even after millions in ticket revenues and souvenir sales are reaped by the Egyptian government and exhibition-sponsoring entertainment company AEG, profits to the museum are expected to reach $2.5 million.

But you do get a different stripe of museum visitor in the midnight hours of such a show. For every euphoric antiquity hound out early Sunday, there seemed to be a sleepy companion or out-of-place night-crawler nearby.

As a throng scrutinized the subtly changing image of a sarcophagus on a slab, the somber exhibition voice-over was interrupted by a less-cultivated voice from a bench in a dark corner.

"Wake me up," said that gravelly voice, "when breakfast is ready."

Near the entrance around 1 a.m., a statuesque blond woman with a bare midriff and fur stole nuzzled her boyfriend and gazed at an ancient cosmetic jar. Meanwhile, Landon and Rebecca Seamons of Duarte emerged with their 9-month-old son, David.

"Where else are you going to see artifacts that have survived for millenniums? This was well worth it," said Landon Seamons, 27, who bought tickets last week after all the civilized hours were sold out.

Over the last 30 years, as more American museums have embraced the economics of traveling blockbuster shows, the all-nighter has become just as much a ritual in its day as the Egyptian's ancient hollowing of royal skulls and scraping of royal viscera into handsome little receptacles. Six years ago, LACMA staged a similar stunt with a traveling Van Gogh show. Then, two years ago, museum officials repeated the gambit with an exhibition of French masterworks from Moscow's State Pushkin Museum. In January, it was the California Science Center's turn; for the last 41 hours of its controversial "Body Worlds" exhibition of preserved human corpses, the place never closed.

A LACMA security guard was asked if it's good or bad luck to land a shift like this.

"Ah, I guess bad," he said.

"Standing for eight hours is hard. I'd prefer to be moving heavy objects," said another of the guards, many of whom were working 12-hour shifts.

Still, said Glenn Thompson, the museum's chief for visitor and security services, getting people to work the Tut show was easy because of the buzz that came with it. At its busiest, the show had 550 visitors per hour browsing down the corridors from one crowded gallery to another.

"There's always a variety of incidents that can occur," said Thompson. "We've had some medical emergencies, but we also had an on-site EMT [emergency medical technician]." Nobody died at the show, he said. In fact, through the entire run, "no significant incidents" were reported.

On late nights in the final days, apart from protecting emergency doors and keeping patrons a safe distance from the artifacts, guards also had to keep an eye out for nodders-off.

For instance, just a few feet from a shabti (that's an ornate wooden figure about a foot high) wearing the double uraeus, Arree Chung's head lolled onto the shoulder of his friend Noriko Yokoyama as they sat on a bench. He came to a moment later. It was about 1:30 a.m.

"We came at 11 p.m.," said Yokoyama, 26, of Irvine.

"The ideal time would be about noon," said Chung, 28, of Pasadena. "They did a great job of presentation.... But I'm so tired."

The bachelor party was perkier.

"We're all pretty much fascinated with ancient Egypt," said Boggs, who works as a cook in an Anaheim restaurant. He had spent the evening's earlier hours having burgers, hitting a bar or two and gaming at a video haven in Long Beach.

Then, on top of arranging Tut as the final stop, his best man summoned Amanda Amstead of La Mirada, whom Boggs will marry Dec. 2, to meet them in the museum parking lot.

"Usually, I'm not a 2 a.m.er," said Amstead, who is 20. "But...."

"It was just random enough for a good ending for a bachelor party," said mastermind James Page, 27, of San Pedro.

"Now, I'm in the same room with things that were seen by an Egyptian king," said Boggs. "It can't get any cooler than that."

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