Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Goodbye, Childhood Friend: My Memories Of The Movieland Wax Museum

All through my childhood, my family very often went on vacation together. I remember going to such places as British Columbia, Seattle, and the Grand Canyon, for example. Two of our most frequently visited places were Disneyland/Universal Studios and Yellowstone National Park, all of which I have very fond memories of.

Often when we went to Disneyland, we would also go to Movieland Wax Museum, which you can read about here. I absolutely loved this place as a child. It was the largest wax museum in the United States and most of its figures were of movie and TV stars in famous scenes from film or television. As a child, I was very interested in film (and still am), and it felt so magical to see scenes from favorite films and TV shows recreated in great detail.

Some of the figures and scenes I remember most were Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. He could be found in the Chamber of Horrors section of the museum, where scenes from popular horror and suspense movies were created. One would walk by a shower curtain, which would whip open to the sound of the famous shrieking violin Psycho music by Bernard Hermann.

I remember turning the corner and walking into a very realistic set of the Starship Enterprise from the original television series "Star Trek." It had the full main crew and all the flickering buttons and lights, and I felt like I was really there.

I remember being in awe of a scene from one of my favorite movies at the time, The Poseidon Adventure, complete with a pretty realistic-looking set and actual trickling water.

Or the famous scene from Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly singing and dancing the title number. Although it was a wax still-life from the movie, there was actual water pouring down while the song blared from a speaker, giving the viewer and listener the illusion that they were actually in the scene.

There was a Fortress of Solitude scene from Superman where Christopher Reeve stood stoically as the wind howled on a speaker.

A Wizard of Oz scene was displayed while the viewer heard dialogue and music from the film.

I remember a forced-perspective view of the famous chariot race from Ben-Hur that made it look much more big and grand than it actually was.

I remember figures of Mae West, W.C Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd, and the Barrymores (in the one film they all were in together). I remember scenes from Mary Poppins, "Bonanza," Rear Window, "Sanford and Son," The African Queen, Nigh Noon, Gone With the Wind, and a particularly poignant one from Two Women (a movie I was not familiar with at the time, but the scene (the aftermath of a rape) stuck with me for a long time).

Of course, at the time there were also many scenes and performers I was not familiar with. At the time, for example, I had no idea who Mary Pickford or Jean Harlow or Norma Shearer or Tyrone Power or William Powell or Myrna Loy or Brigitte Bardot were (although the figure of Ms. Bardot covering her breasts is something I do remember because it seemed a bit risqué to me at the time). But it did make me want to know more about who these people were and the work they did. Of course, I know who all of them are now and have seen some of their pictures since my childhood.

I just remember feeling that Movieland Wax Museum was kind of a fun, magical place, and being as interested in movies and TV as I was, it was the most superb and appropriate wax museum I had ever been to (or been to since).

In 1997 or '98 I was working at a theater in Bakersfield, California, and a friend of mine and I decided to go to L.A. and Anaheim. She had never been to the museum, and I hadn't been there since I was a kid, and I was wanting to relive my childhood, so we decided to go.

As an adult, the museum seemed to me a little more cheesy than it did as a child, and the figures and scenes were not as true to form or as kept up as I remember them being as a child. The museum seemed a bit run down and not as well-attended, and there were new figures that didn't seem as true to life as the older ones did. I remember there being one of Bill Clinton in the Oval Office (which I know wasn't there is my younger days). In some ways, the place seemed a bit cheap in its presentation, which is not at all the way I felt as a kid.

Still, it made me feel like a kid again, and my friend and I had a wonderful time. It still felt magical in many ways, and I loved being there again.

Sadly, that was the last time I visited Movieland Wax Museum. I had always intended to take Jonah there some time (although I'm not sure whether he would have gotten as much a kick out of it as I did), but never got around to it.

Yesterday I was watching the movie Two Women, which I finally had a chance to see, and remembering that it was Movieland Wax Museum that introduced me to that movie, I went online to see how my old friend, the museum, was doing. I was saddened to find out it had closed five years ago after 43 years of operation. I wasn't terribly surprised by the news, but was still shocked, if that makes sense. I felt like a piece of my childhood had been ripped out from underneath me, and it made me grieve somewhat, especially knowing that I would never again have the chance to visit a place I had so loved as a child.

I guess part of what made me sad was it felt like there was a loss of a simpler time. In its heyday, Movieland Wax Museum was one of the most popular wax museums in the U.S. Stars would come and inaugurate their figures (Vincent Price once stood in for his and scared patrons). Often, genuine costumes and props from original production would be used in the wax scenes. Some celebrities left hand- and footprints in the cement in front of the building. 10,000,000 people visited the museum. Mary Pickford herself dedicated the museum when it opened in 1962.

Eventually, however, attendance dwindled, and the museum became a relic from another time. Some of the figures were donated to a wax museum in San Francisco (which I've been to and didn't like as much) and others were auctioned off to private collectors. The property is supposed to become (or already is) a shopping plaza. The museum couldn't compete with the attractions of today's world. It just made me kind of sad.

It reminds me of the old casinos in Vegas that were once the places to be in their heyday, but have now become nothing more than sad shells of their former selves. The Liberace Museum in Vegas is closing, which is a shame. Jonah, in particular, has been quite upset about it.

Anyone, I just wanted to dedicate this post in memory of a wonderful childhood friend, Movieland Wax Museum. Goodbye. We had some good times. I hope you are resting in peace.


Rob said...

Hey! I grew up in OC and went to Disneyland and the Movieland Wax Museum too! And I remember some of the same things about it. Very sad that it closed, indeed. Thanks for a pleasant trip down amnesia lane.

Ron said...

Love your post about the Movieland Wax Museum! I totally had the same feeling and experiences you had. Just reading your post brought back so many great memories of my family visits to the wax museum. I remember becoming uber nervous in the "Alien" section and holding onto my dads shirt...making him lead the way. Sad to hear that it's no more.