CINEMA NON-VERITE

Re-creating Re-creations

Photo by Keith MayLaurel and Hardy, whose likenesses were the first to be committed to beeswax at this gussied-up Buena Park warehouse, were fresh memories when Movieland Wax Museum opened on May 3, 1962. Stan Laurel, the skinny one, was still alive, and Oliver Hardy had died only five years earlier, though he'd long been debilitated by a serious stroke.

But after nearly four decades on display, everything about Laurel and Hardy's frozen funny faces and the chaotic scene from their 1923 movie Perfect Day remains the consummate metaphor for this place. They are depicted having just survived a comedic car wreck, sitting beneath the marquee of an old movie house, next to a box office their jalopy has smashed, looking befuddled and disgusted and—maybe—secretly grateful. Lots of people emerge from the Movieland Wax Museum tour looking the same way.

The concept of the attraction hasn't changed. The museum still purports to simulate a visit to the back lots and sound stages of old Hollywood. Famous moments of classic movies have been reassembled in meticulous detail, right down to the clapboard that identifies each film's title and year, scene, and . . . ahh, yes, the stars!! Icons from bygone screen eras abound, each of them fully and forever invested in a definitive role, all of them situated in dramatically lifelike poses.

But it's difficult to know what to make of this experience anymore. Perfect Day was 33 years old when it was memorialized here. Now Movieland itself is almost that old. Sometimes these displays come across like a step up—or down—from open-casket funerals.

In its way, however, Movieland Wax Museum actually provides a much purer form of time travel than the vicarious experience of staring at its sets. Over the years, as Movieland has sat relatively unchanged on Beach Boulevard while the city and its other tourist attractions have metamorphosed around it, the place has developed its own historical legitimacy. It is a functioning—and, we assume (even if we don't understand), profitable—remnant of another era. It comes from a time when a room full of glorified department-store mannequins could hold our attention long enough to qualify as entertainment. It reminds us of a friend who, as a child, went to Movieland Wax Museum four times one summer—and begged his mom to make it five. That's hard to imagine in this age of digitalized, animatronic, computerized interactiveness.

The craft behind wax museums dates to ancient civilizations. The Egyptians and Greeks created wax figures for religious rituals. The elite classes of the Roman Empire displayed likenesses of their ancestors. Death masks were popular in medieval Europe to preserve the faces of esteemed people, and this practice gained more popularity during the Renaissance.

The modern wax museum springs from the work of Marie Grosholtz in the 18th century. In Paris during the French Revolution, she was assigned to make hundreds of death masks of heads freshly severed by the guillotine. The eerie job apparently agreed with her; when she married—becoming Madame Tussaud—she and her husband established a "wax salon" in Paris. By 1835, she had branched out alone, opening a wax salon in London.

During the next 100 years, wax museums became legendary. Their early appeal is understandable, considering the lack of mass-media imagery. Not only were there no movies or television, but printing presses were primitive, photography was in its infancy, and illustrations in most publications were, at best, sketches. Most of the world's famous people, from royalty to entertainers, were known chiefly by reputation, not appearance.

Madame Tussaud's wax museums are still the most famous, and they have spread all over the world, even to Las Vegas. But tangential imitations have continued to pop up everywhere, from university history departments to carnival sideshows to this one, one block north of Knott's Berry Farm.

Movieland opened with 60 figures; its collection has grown to about 300. There have been attempts to keep the exhibits apace with the changing faces of show business, from a dull and vacant (and thus incredibly accurate) rendering of Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves to a cartoonish (and, again, right-on) portrayal of Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act.

But the focus of the attraction—and its most compelling re-creations—comes from closer to the dawn of movie stardom. These, too, vary wildly in their actual resemblance to the stars. Jean Harlow, the blond bombshell who died at age 26, looks like someone forgot to bury her. Vincent Price is appropriately portrayed in his role as a deranged sculptor in House of Wax. Marilyn Monroe looks like a peroxide Betty Crocker. Gary Cooper seems ready to step right out of a colorized version of High Noon, although this may be attributable to the above-mentioned Costner Effect. Norma Shearer looks regally beautiful as Marie Antoinette—but who remembers what Norma Shearer looks like?

Nonetheless, our curiosity about a golden age of film that we have only glimpsed in movies on late-late shows or cable networks—and almost exclusively in black-and-white—persuades us to cut these exhibits some cynical slack.

Not so with the display that winds up the tour, however, which is a depiction of a generically dough-faced President Clinton giving a thumbs up in the Oval Office. He looks ridiculous. It's hard to understand why he'd just be standing there, all alone yet so happy. Then again, you can't see under his desk.

 
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