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Light a candle for the wax museum

October 31, 2005|Karin Klein

AS A KID, I NEVER visited a wax museum -- all I knew about them came from an old "Twilight Zone" episode. It's the one where Martin Balsam plays the caretaker at a museum that's closing after 30 years. He's grown fond of some of the statues, especially those of notorious killers, and gets permission to put them in his basement. His wife is unhappy about the cost of the air conditioning necessary to keep the statues firm, and ... well, you can guess the rest.

By the 1980s, when I moved to Southern California, I was surprised to find a wax museum not far away. Even then, the Movieland Wax Museum, with its plaster-cast likenesses of Hollywood stars, seemed impossibly quaint. Which may be why, after more than 40 years, the home of 300-plus costumed wax statues will close forever after today. Last week, I made my first and last visit.

Movieland is on a busy commercial strip in Buena Park that has become an unlikely mecca for tourism entrepreneurs. As I turned off the freeway, I could see the looping tracks of roller coasters at Knott's Berry Farm rising impressively a few blocks ahead. On the left was Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, which is also closing, and the Medieval Times restaurant, where customers chow down at banquettes while watching pretend jousting matches. On the right was Movieland, with its slightly tarnished marquee. Admission was only $5.

I paid and followed the trail in the dark, passing the effigies of Tom Selleck (with a twinkle in his glass eye), Kate Winslet (who should file a formal complaint about the sculptor) and other Hollywood stars. Many of the statues -- Greta Garbo and Marie Osmond, for instance -- looked so waxy, I half expected to see wicks sticking out of their heads. Others were blotchy, like they'd gotten dirty and no one had cleaned them. Poor Robert Taylor's chin and lips were cracked. Inexplicably, Clint Eastwood stood between Mae West and W.C. Fields.

The statues were occasionally accompanied by placards making breathless announcements. One day Vincent Price stood in for his statue and had fun scaring the tourists. The ruffled lavender gown and hat Barbra Streisand sports from "Hello Dolly" "were reproduced for Movieland at a cost of $4,000." I learned the statues were created through careful measurement and plaster casting. Human hair is planted individually.

So now I know how they do it. My question is: Why?

During its 1960s heyday, long before kids were able to manipulate Orlando Bloom on GameCube, Movieland was as close as you could get to most Hollywood stars, with their elaborate costumes and painstaking hair plugs (real stars have them too, you know). Nowadays the tourists seem decidedly un-wowed. Last week they dutifully trooped through, commenting occasionally on a particularly true or horrible likeness and buying "Hollywood" shot glasses at the gift shop, where everything was 50% off. I bought a Movieland mug for the office. And I couldn't help feeling a twinge of loss for the days when we were all more easily thrilled.

Many of the wax statues will be auctioned off. Where is Rod Serling when we need him?

Karin Klein

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