The Mysterious Afterlives Of A Wax President
Lyndon B. Johnson shares a room with Admiral Farragut and an Amish schoolteacher in Western Pennsylvania. He also recently retired to Warm Springs, Georgia, and could possibly be hiding in a storage unit in Ohio with 21 other presidents. Unlike their more animated counterparts, these wax former chief executives do not get to stop acting presidential when their terms expire. They just take their eternally stoic faces elsewhere, depending on the charity of others in an era of grave wax unemployment.
It's a hard time to be a historical wax figure, as American history–themed wax museums — one of the leading job creators for dead presidents besides the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and Lin-Manuel Miranda — are going extinct. The figures that once populated them are now members of one of America's strangest diasporas — ghosts of tourist traps past given a chance to reinvent themselves, and maybe change history in the process.
One such museum, the Hall of Presidents & First Ladies in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, served as a roadside curiosity for Civil War buffs from 1957 until last November, when it closed after years of bad business. As a result, auctioneer Randy Dickensheets spent the weekend before Donald Trump's inauguration selling so many of the new leader's forebears that it felt like a presidential sample sale. He auctioned off the aforementioned LBJ statue to the Dennison family, owners of an amusement-park museum in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as well as that wax Civil War officer and educator. William Howard Taft was last seen being belted into a red car. Arrangements were in progress for Andrew Johnson and Benjamin Harrison’s relocation to a barn near Harrisburg, where Abraham Lincoln was already waiting.
When most people think of wax museums, Madame Tussauds — tourist flypaper dotting major metropolises around the globe with immobile replicas of Angelina Jolie and Nelson Mandela — is what comes to mind. But these places, born from the mind of French wax sculptor Marie Tussaud, are not what we are talking about here. We are talking about the American adaptation of the wax museum, that nominally educational fixture of the kitschy main drags that surround historical landmarks, in which unsettling creatures with real hair and questionable humanity act out screenshots from the past just steps from the world’s greatest fudge.
And if the wax museum was built around the '60s or '70s, the scenes inside — U.S. history textbooks crossbred with New Yorker cartoons — were probably masterminded by Earl Dorfman. The former department-store window-display manager, who died in 1995, was the cloning wizard behind the figures in roughly 15 museums across the country. One of his innovations was not making his figures from wax at all, preferring a far more durable plastic. In the Dorfman exhibits, “wax” is merely a state of mind.
The dearly departed Pioneer Square Wax Museum in Seattle was a Dorfman creation, as was the Natural Bridge Wax Museum in Virginia and the Amish-themed Lancaster County Wax Museum in Pennsylvania. Perhaps you remember the Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg, not to be confused with the similarly defunct presidential one nearby. Roughly 180 Dorfman wax figures from the Plymouth National Wax Museum were sold to the owner of a concrete-construction business in Connecticut. He then sold them in the parking lot to people who had myriad uses for dead pilgrims. One woman bought a figure to keep her company on road trips. Several more went to Glenn Corbett, a 56-year-old fire-protection expert working on a book about historical wax museums tentatively titled Melting Away. Corbett keeps his plastic people in a spare bedroom along with 15 other figures, including Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts senator famous for being caned by a congressman for opposing slavery. They have been known to terrify people looking for Corbett’s upstairs bathroom.
The only Dorfman collection left intact is the John Brown one in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, which has long bragged that it is the cheapest wax museum in the Mid-Atlantic — and allegedly only the second in the world to be based on a single person (the other is Jesus). Its pièce de résistance is its final scene, a two-story addition to the original brick building in which John Brown, on the stairs to the gallows, lifts his bearded wax head and stares at the viewer, daring them to witness as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays on a loudspeaker.
Katherine Stubergh is the other big name in this insular industry. She is mostly remembered for her figures of people in entertainment — making a Charlie Chaplin is far easier when you're close enough friends with him to get a cast of his face — but plenty of her historical reproductions are still out there, too. The National Presidential Wax Museum near Mount Rushmore, the still-operational competitor to the one in Gettysburg, owes its existence to her work — and her willingness to write to the White House to ascertain the exact dimensions of each commander-in-chief. She died in the '90s, however, and her apprentice passed away during the Obama administration. The new Donald Trump figure, which will debut this summer, will be the first one at the museum built without institutional memory, an unforeseen complication that now seems quite fitting.
The Mammoth Cave Wax Museum in Cave City, Kentucky, also featured Stubergh’s handiwork, including an autographed Albert Einstein. Herby Moore built the wax museum in the '60s, hoping to take advantage of the throngs of visitors who, unlike him, were excited about the idea of spending a day underground. He bought the land for $21,000 and it was a wild success. “It kind of went to my head,” Moore says now. “I hate to say that, but it did.” So he sought to expand his Mammoth Cave tourism empire, buying up another plot of cheap land and building an entire historical village called Wondering Woods. His luck had dried up, however, and the venture lost him more than a million dollars over the next 15 years. He had to sell the park and the wax museum to pay off his debts. Wondering Woods is now a bat sanctuary owned by the National Park Service, an ivy-covered Rapunzel-esque tower the only evidence of Moore's outsize ambitions. Kentuckyana Jones, a reality TV "extreme" treasure hunter who remembers visiting the sites as a kid, is now renovating the wax museum, and he tries to call Moore, now 87, at least once a week. He hopes to turn the museum into a showcase for his personal collection of lost arks — as well as Hatfield-and-McCoy memorabilia and veteran-focused exhibits. (Jones will also face trial for bank fraud in August, and has pleaded not guilty.) Most of the history is gone, however, and the wax figures have already vacated the premises.
The bargain-bin wax auction in Gettysburg, which saw bystanders playing 43 Pickup with former chief executives as if newly nostalgic for anything presidential, was atypical. Most of the time, historical wax figures that don’t melt — like Lyndon Johnson did in 1988, when a fire swept through the Southwestern Historical Wax Museum in Grand Prairie, Texas — face one of two afterlives: They can retire, or they can be reincarnated. Preston Evans's Follow the Leaders museum, built from purchases found in the vanishing archipelagoes of misfit figures, is perhaps the closest the world of wax has to a senior living community.
All Evans wanted originally was an FDR. As an owner of several museums in Warm Springs, where you can find the longest-serving president's Little White House, it just made sense. So Evans went to Kentucky, where all of Herby Moore's collection was being disbanded, and found himself a Roosevelt. An insatiable collector of historical arcana once featured on American Pickers, Evans soon found himself craving more. So he bought out more of the Cave City catalogue, including Einstein. When the Buffalo Bill Wax Museum just outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, shut down, he went to buy up a bunch of cowboys. Evans did not go to the Hall of Presidents & First Ladies auction, saying in his best southern impersonation of Lady Catherine de Bourgh that “they weren't quality.”
He already had a bunch of presidents anyway, which retain a hint of their Kentucky heritage (Lady Bird Johnson wears a dress that was originally meant for Herby Moore's wife, although she never got to wear it). The figures have a few surprises left, too. Although Evans acquired Mary Todd Lincoln, Lincoln himself was too expensive. But when he started to reassemble the figurines from Mammoth Cave's Jesse James bank-robbery scene, which had traveled across state lines as a jumble of body parts, he found that James's brother was an imposter. Under the bandana was Abe Lincoln, who has since been steered away from his life of crime.
The second and more likely option for wax figures moving on is ascending to wax heaven at BibleWalk in Mansfield, Ohio. “The Lord,” museum director Julie Mott-Hardin says, “has chosen us to use a dying art to resurrect a dying art.” If there's a historical wax museum you remember from your youth, the stock characters that once filled it have probably been redeployed and are now acting out the word of God — perhaps undercover, with a fake beard or wig to mask their previous roles in history.
Reverend Richard Diamond and his wife, Alwilda, were inspired to start a wax museum after visiting one that no longer exists in Atlanta. In 1987, BibleWalk, borrowing the name of a shuttered museum in Pittsburgh, officially opened. It is the only wax museum in Ohio.
Every single one of the figures populating these scenes are born-again, repurposed characters proving that inanimate objects can be anything in America. BibleWalk's founders quickly realized what many of these dead museums already knew: New wax figures are expensive. The new Trump figurine in South Dakota cost tens of thousands of dollars. So, BibleWalk went antique shopping. Most of the leftover wax figures aren't famous; recreations of history need extras too. And these old museums had plenty to sell. Some came from the Mammoth Cave Wax Museum. Potter's Wax Museum in Florida was a gold mine for the Diamonds' exhibit on the Reformation. As for the famous figures, BibleWalk doesn't care who they were in their previous life. Elizabeth Taylor is now an extra in a scene on the Wisdom of Solomon. Mott-Hardin says that the museum acquired statues of the Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Anne Boleyn, and around 22 presidents, but won't say whether they are in a scene or in storage. Their origins are besides the point. And don't even ask about the possibility of getting a celebrity-sighting tour there. “My own friends ask where they are,” she says, “and I won't even tell them.”
BibleWalk's single biggest purchase was from the Natural Bridge Wax Museum in Virginia, which it bought “lock, stock, and barrel.” Earl Dorfman's son Rob says this museum was his favorite of the family empire until it closed in 2014. Rob went into the family business, but there isn't much money in wax museums now. Other museums need figures, though, as do other businesses, such as Bass Pro Shops, which wanted a Teddy Roosevelt for its own wildlife exhibits. He's glad that his dad's work lives on — as does Earl, sort of. The elder Dorfman made himself a Forrest Gump of his museums, creating figures that looked suspiciously like self-portraits to play stock roles in the backgrounds of his scenes, like the landing at Plymouth Rock. Most of the time, the wax Dorfmans lingered at the back with a paintbrush, snoring. Now that most of the original scenes featuring this history-crasher no longer exist, Dorfman's doppelgängers are witnessing new events — as are replicas of Rob, which have also gone into the family line of work. At BibleWalk, Rob is currently one of the people tying up Samson. There are at least 15 Earl Dorfman figures Where's Waldoing around the country, enough to populate an exhibit if they were ever assembled. One is in Rob's office, sleeping in the corner.
The reasons that wax figures had to find new jobs in the first place are obvious. Economics are the main culprit. The fact that wax figures have evolved into a synonym for creepy doesn't help, nor does the inevitable arc of technology, which tends to sentence all innovations to irrelevance only years after they are created. “We know half the people coming to the museum are there because they really like the history and art of it,” says Clay King, who runs the National Presidential Wax Museum. “Other people are coming because it's just weird as crap. We kind of embrace that.” The few first-draft figures left still soldier on. Great Blacks in Wax, which has been open since 1983, is planning an expansion. Dr. Joanne Martin, who started the Baltimore museum with her late husband Elmer, says her project has something that the departed wax ventures lacked. “Most were built for commercial purposes,” she says. “Our museum was built out of the fact that we were dealing with the history that has been neglected.” The figures aren't hidden behind glass, because “we don't want them to feel isolated from that history. Because there has been too much of that.” Much of the history being told is painful; visitors are often crying when they leave the slave ship and lynching scenes.
And has the rest of America gotten better at telling these stories in the decades since Great Blacks in Wax first opened? “Until November 9,” Martin says, “I would have said yes. I think that our museum continues to be so very necessary.”
The others, not so much. There aren't many more wax museums left to close, which means that these secondhand exhibitions are running out of places to find unwanted presidents and old stories ready for adaptation into alternative facts. BibleWalk isn't worried, though. “They always,” Mott-Hardin says, “seem to find us.”