They auctioned off the presidents and their wives on Saturday. Between 350 and 400 people crowded into a hotel ballroom in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on a cold, wet day to bid on the contents of the Hall of Presidents and First Ladies wax museum, which, besides offering up wax effigies of every chief executive and first lady, also included wall murals, photographs, shelving, old rolls of tickets, commemorative plaques, flags, and a seemingly endless supply of brass railing.
Abraham Lincoln fetched the most: $8,500. Teddy Roosevelt was second at $8,000. George Washington went for $5,610, and it went down from there. Richard Nixon cost someone only $1,900. The wives went for considerably less. Hillary Clinton topped the bidding for wives at $675, but most of them went for much less. But then the wives, for reasons no one could explain, are all half as tall as their mates: The men are supposedly life-size, but each first lady is precisely 3 feet 10 inches tall. They look like the moms of American Girl dolls.
I attended the auction because it seemed like the end of something—more than just the end of this particular wax museum, more like the end of an era that saw mom and pop museums of all sorts and quality arise and flourish in tandem with car travel. Conventional wisdom says that Disney and all the other mega-theme parks have, slowly but surely, sucked the life out of these roadside enterprises the same way big box stores crippled Main Street. I’m not so sure.
Some of the bidders were there for fun. Germaine Schaefer, who works for the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C., said she had taken up a collection in her office and came with $670 to bid with. She said the presidents were too rich for her wallet, so she settled for a couple of first ladies. “It was sort of an office competition,” she said, grinning. “So we’ll put our first ladies on our side of the office, and when visitors and guests come through, they can have their picture taken with the ladies.”
A few others, including the owners of other nearby small attractions, including haunted houses and military museums, were there to buy what they could to flesh out their own collections. Most of the crowd was there just to watch.
The auction was held in the Meade ballroom (I don’t think there’s so much as an outhouse in Gettysburg not named for a Civil War general) of the 1863 Inn of Gettysburg, a hotel across the street from the defunct wax museum. None of the presidents or first ladies, or any of the other paraphernalia for that matter, was present in the Meade Room. The auctioneer would simply throw up a photo of the lot to be auctioned next on a couple of TV monitors flanking the podium. The crying was brisk, and everything went fast, even the ephemera—how many original LIFE magazine photographs of Ike on his Gettysburg farm can there be? Hundreds? Thousands? Bidding started in late morning and by 2 pm they had sold off everything up through Grover Cleveland.
Across the street, lucky bidders were already making off with their loot. Most of the contents were still inside, the presidents and wives arrayed along the walls, backlit and spectral. It was like a funeral home without caskets. I watched while they took Truman’s head off his manikin body (though the results are often sketchy, considerable care goes into creating a wax head of a famous person, but inspiration dies from the neck down: little or no attempt was made to replicate the bodies of the commanders in chief, and in the case of the wives, no attempt was made at all). It took less than a minute to decapitate Truman, shroud his head in bubble wrap, and then box it up for the retired college history professor waiting eagerly to take it home.
Other than simple curiosity—I like to gawk as much as the next guy—I attended the auction because I was taken to a wax museum in Gettysburg when I was a child. Was this the one? Wandering from one gloomy room to the next in the Hall of Presidents (oddly, there is no hall in the Hall), I decided that my family must have taken me to some other wax museum—in the heyday of mom and pop attractions, the town had more than one! Not even my education-minded aunt and uncle would have inflicted this morbidity on me.
The truth is, I have never understood wax museums. Wax effigies date back to at least the 14th century, when dead royals were paraded through the streets on top of their coffins—waxwork replicas were substituted because there was no chance they would smell (no wonder you get a morbid vibe from these creatures). By the 19th century, the figures had become attractions worthy of admission fees. Marry what was then high tech and ghoulishness, and you’ve got yourself a tourist attraction.
But while ghoulishness never goes out of style, wax figures are no one’s idea of cutting edge anything these days. Nor, for that matter, are any human replicas, be they wax, mechanical, or computer-generated: Disney’s audioanimatronic presidents have been moving and speaking to theme-park millions since the ’60s, but how long has it been since even a small child said, “Wow”?
The Hall of Presidents and First Ladies opened in 1957 and according to one news account, drew as many as 100,000 visitors a year at the height of its popularity in the ’60s and ’70s. Last year, only 11,000 showed up.
Reading through the comments in the online stories about the auction, I kept encountering people grumbling about kids these days and their short attention spans and their disdain for anything not hooked up to a computer. Personally, I don’t like to see children maligned this way, and anyway, can you blame them? Waxworks may once have been cool (if you tried really, really hard, you could almost convince yourself they looked real), but getting worked up over their demise seems to me to be the worst kind of sentimentality, i.e., the fraudulent kind. It’s like tearing up because no one bobs for apples any more.
People will also sneer that wax museums died because people don’t like old things, but that’s not entirely true either. Barely a mile down the road from the wax museum, the centerpiece of the National Park Service’s visitor center is a restored cyclorama painting of the battle of Gettysburg, and people can’t get enough of it, even though it’s 134 years old.
Cycloramas were once the rage in this country. Before movies put them out of business, they were the IMAX of the late 19th century. They usually featured battles or Bible scenes; the crucifixion was a big hit. These circular paintings were so big (the Gettysburg cyclorama measures 47 feet tall and 377 feet in circumference) that they had to have special buildings erected to contain them, buildings used for nothing else—that’s how popular they were. And if you visit the Gettysburg cyclorama, you can immediately see why. Your first impression is not, “What did great-grandad see in these things?” but rather, “Good lord, honey, will you look at that!” Originally executed by a team of experts under the direction of French painter Paul Phillippoteaux (there was even one artist whose specialty was horses), and now immaculately restored, this painting in the round puts you at the very center of the battle on day three, just when Pickett’s charge is failing, and with it the rebel army’s hope of invading the North.
Ezra Pound said that art is news that stays news. And while the gigantic canvas at Gettysburg may not be great art, even today it still makes you gasp in a way that the Hall of Presidents and First Ladies most definitely did not. So it goes in the curious arithmetic of time and taste, where some attractions survive and some don’t. As for me, I can’t get too worked up at the idea of wax museums going under. They had their day, and that day is done. It was thin fun anyway.