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Movieland Museum's Closing Shows You Can't Stay Hot in Wax

October 19, 2005|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Orange County's Movieland Wax Museum opened in 1962 with all the hoopla of the place it was imitating -- Hollywood. Searchlights combed the skies above Buena Park, actress Mary Pickford cut a ceremonial ribbon, and a freshly sculpted wax figure of James Dean greeted the guests.

But on Tuesday, citing increased competition from nearby amusement parks and shopping malls, the museum announced that on Halloween it would close. The owners said they also might close the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, directly across Beach Boulevard from the wax museum.

The news came as a shock to longtime and first-time visitors who were told at the box office that tickets would be discounted from $12.95 to $5 until closing day.

"It's going to be sad to see this place go," said Gary Graves of Orange. "I've been bringing out-of-town relatives here for years. It was always fun to see their reactions their first time through."

Many of the more than 300 wax figures, movie sets and costumes will be auctioned off or shipped to the museum's thriving location at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

The late Allen Parkinson, a star-struck entrepreneur who made a fortune with an over-the-counter sleep aid, built the museum for $1.5 million. He followed it up with the nearby Japanese Village and Deer Park and the adjoining Palace of Living Art, for which he hired sculptors to recreate classic paintings in three-dimensional wax figures. Parkinson sold the wax museum and the two other attractions for $10 million in 1970.

For many years, Movieland Wax Museum has held its own in a part of Orange County dominated by high-voltage amusement alternatives such as Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland and upscale shopping malls such as the Block at Orange and South Coast Plaza.

At its peak in the 1960s, Movieland drew as many as 1.2 million visitors a year, and Hollywood stars such as James Stewart, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carol Burnett often showed up for their enshrinement in wax.

But Rodney Fong, whose family bought Movieland in 1980 from Six Flags, said business "slowly declined" and the museum became a "third-day attraction" with vacationers.

"Once Disneyland and Universal Studios became two-day attractions, we began competing with retail, the beach and other activities on the third day," Fong said. "People aren't taking longer vacations or spending more money, so that made it real rough for us."

Fong said he tried to find a buyer who would keep the building as a wax museum, but there were no takers. He would not provide attendance figures for the last year.

Joe Granio, whose family was visiting Orange County from Mesa, Ariz., said the wax museum was a perfect "travel day" activity. "It's a place to fill in time before you hit the road," he said. "It's not something you can do for a full day or even half a day."

Granio, 37, said the wax figures of mainly old-time movie and television stars had become an attraction from a bygone era, and he wasn't surprised it was shutting down.

"It's hard to get the young kids excited about looking at statues of stars," he said. "They're stimulated by faster paced things like video games and action movies."

As a young couple from Jackson, Miss., strolled through the museum, they were struck by the figure of Catherine Zeta-Jones in an elegant black dress.

"Oh, my God, she would stand just like that too," said Gabrielle McCart. "How do they do that?" But moments later, they weren't as impressed when they turned to the set of "Pretty Woman" and saw Julia Roberts.

"I love Julia, but she doesn't really look much like that," said Jeremy Long, who nonetheless posed for a picture with his favorite star.

So what will become of the home to so many stars?

P-nhut Cacal, the museum's manager, said the owners were in serious talks with a developer who planned to transform the place into a pizza joint.

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