Stepping into the dark halls of the Musee Conti Wax Museum for the first time since his childhood, a visitor couldn't quite pinpoint it, but something was different. The scene depicting the 1815 Battle of New Orleans looked just like he remembered it. In reality, it hadn't changed since the place opened in 1963. Gen. Andrew Jackson was there, sword in hand, commanding his troops — figures frozen in time for more than 50 years. Then it hit him: Where was the beating heart? For years, a machine made the last moments of a wounded soldier sound more realistic.
"His little mechanical heart finally just gave up last June," a tour guide explained, "and things being what they are, we just didn't have it in us to fix it."
It's a fitting and somewhat sad analogy for the French Quarter attraction, which is set to close for good Jan. 31, 2016. Visitors and school groups still come to "the Wax," as its former owner calls it, and the private parties upstairs still bring in business. It's somewhat campy, somewhat creepy; all the historically accurate scenes and costumed wax figures are there. But the heart of the place has just about stopped beating. Soon, this house of wax will go condo.
"We wanted to keep it going. We really did," said Katherine Weil Spurlock, whose grandfather co-founded the museum and whose family ran it until the sale earlier this year. "But in many ways it's a generational thing."
"A place like this was harder and harder to keep up in this day and age," Spurlock said. "It was tough to find a buyer to make the numbers work, with changes in entertainment, in business and also to the Quarter." The property was sold to developers Earl and Jonathan Weber, who plan to build 16 luxury condominiums on the site.
"Change" is not a word often used when you talk about a wax museum. Ever since the days of Madame Tussaud, the goal has been the same: to capture famous faces in history and preserve them for posterity. Unlike the famous Madame, whose franchise "museums" continue to draw crowds across America, Europe and Asia, the New Orleans wax museum is different, with much less focus on celebrity and current pop culture. While a figure of Louis Armstrong sits in the lobby and Pete Fountain stands incongruously near Freddy Krueger, this place is more about story than stars: "This really is a history museum that happens to be in wax," Spurlock said.
Three dozen displays featuring 144 life-sized wax figures tell the story of the Crescent City from its earliest days in 1699 through three centuries, up to the modern era, from Iberville and Bienville to Edwin Edwards. Along the way, it's Mark Twain and Marie Laveau, an Ursuline nun and Jean Lafitte, Huey Long, a Mardi Gras Indian and the Grand Duke Alexis. (That doesn't include the 1970s-era addition of a haunted dungeon, where Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster share space with the Creature from the Black Lagoon.)
The museum's founders prided themselves on their attention to history. It's one reason they hired John Churchill Chase, the legendary cartoonist, historian and author, as their historical consultant.
"Musee Conti is unusual among wax museums in that it tells a story in chronological order ... from 1699 to 1910," Chase writes in the delightful 1964 guidebook that takes visitors through each of the museum's 31 scenes and explains in detail their history (also available on signs in front of each display).
In the guidebook, Chase also relates the history of the museum itself. Co-founder Benjamin Weil owned the nearby Prince Conti Hotel. His chief collaborator on the project, Isador "Izzy" Lazarus, came from the entertainment business. He and his family owned several local movie houses. Trips to Europe, where wax museums had been popular attractions for centuries, sparked their idea. According to one story, the men poured $250,000 and three years of work into the project.
"What we are trying to do here," Lazarus told The Times-Picayune in 1964, "is to present the people instrumental in making history in New Orleans and to depict the interesting and exciting things about the city."
In addition to hiring Chase, the owners contracted Charles Gresham to design the 22,000-square foot building and its tableaux-like sets. His other work in town included designing for Brennan's, Broussard's and Commander's Palace. Former WWL-TV art director Joe Bakshis also was a key craftsman.
"They really did hire some of the best people for the job, which showed just how much they wanted this to be high quality," explained Weil's daughter-in-law, Sandra Weil. She spent 30 years at the museum, not just as a family owner but as a tour guide. For three decades, "Madam Wax" (as her daughter and other co-workers called her) led thousands of visitors through the museum, including many children on field trips. In addition to explaining the historical figures, she also could let them in on the behind-the-scenes secrets. The figures were crafted in France and made of beeswax by the same artisans who created many of the modern Madame Tussaud mannequins. Their glass eyes came from Germany and many of their clothes and props are antiques. Their hair is real, imported from Italy.
Weil laughed when asked about the stir she created at her beauty parlor when she brought in the head of John James Audubon for a styling. She also recalled how the figures first were flown over from France, some in passenger seats on a Pan Am jet. The figures sat in storage in a warehouse at D.H. Holmes until construction was complete.
Many of the wax figures are so lifelike that the children who visit sometimes need reassuring before they'll set foot inside. "I tell them they're just big baby dolls," said employee Faith Richburg.
There are 25 figures in the Battle of New Orleans scene alone, which is among the museum's most memorable. Its backdrop is a 38-foot mural by artist Charles Reinike. Artisans created another scene depicting a Mardi Gras parade through the Vieux Carre, complete with some 300 miniature floats and figures.
As for the life-sized versions, Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most memorable, shown taking his morning bath on April 7, 1803, exclaiming his determination to sell the Louisiana territory to the Americans. Museum ads once encouraged visitors to "See Napoleon in his bathtub" and he's still there — with a sponge strategically placed to protect the emperor's dignity.
A few feet away, those in the know will spot the museum's co-founders, who are represented as the men in box seats at the French Opera House, alongside opera singer Jenny Lind. Sandra Weil joked she sometimes would gripe to the figure of her father-in-law about her husband's foibles. "But he never answered back," she says. Edwin Edwards and Pete Fountain were added to the museum in 1986 and 1990. "We loved working with Pete and his wife Beverly, who gave us one of his suits, his shoes and a tie, even a ring for his finger," Weil says.
After tours, Weil often would encourage visitors to continue their history lesson beyond the museum, even creating a self-guided French Quarter walking tour and distributing printed copies to guests. She would also mentor a third generation of tour guides at the museum, including Beth Sigur, who left the Musee Conti last fall after nearly 20 years to become sales manager at the Napoleon House.
"I went from telling stories about Napoleon to working in the house supposedly built for him," Sigur said. "I really did love working at the museum, especially seeing people who remembered coming there as a child and then bringing back their children for a visit."
An upstairs area was renovated in the 1990s for events which have included private parties, weddings and Dinner Lab private dinners. Protecting the museum's full-time residents from the wear and tear created by party guests has been a challenge.
"A lot of people are tempted to touch the figures," museum director Alex Key said. "They're used to going to Madame Tussaud's where you can pose with them. We do have an alarm that goes off any time somebody gets too close, though."
Despite the alarm and the warnings, Sigur has seen photos on social media of patrons posing with the figures over the years.
Maintaining an old building in the Quarter also has had its challenges. What may seem like a great sound effect — running water in the Napoleon bathtub scene — was actually a quirk of the plumbing system, Key says.
The wax figures have held up remarkably well over the past five decades. The staff cleans them with a light dusting; anything more might change the course of history.
"When I first came here, it was quite a thing for me to climb over the banister and get in there with them. I was always afraid I'd break something," said museum employee Rhonda Lee.
"They're very fragile, so we try to be as careful as we can," Key said. Dracula's hand, for instance, now sits on a shelf in his office rather than at the end of the Count's arm. With new wax figures costing around $20,000, according to Sandra Weil, and no easy way to send damaged ones off for repairs, creative costuming was the best solution. Dracula's cape now covers the spot where his hand once was.
In the 1980s, a competing wax museum opened on Bourbon Street, announcing it would add Michael Jackson to its attractions. The Musee Conti's owners moved quickly to add Jackson to their lineup first. The King of Pop was on display there for about a decade, until construction work crushed his torso. Only his head survived, which museum managers playfully added to a glass cabinet in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. Strange? Sure, but at Musee Conti, it works.
"I always wondered about the figures standing there, year after year, peering out from behind their glass eyes," Spurlock said. "To think of what they've seen and the stories they could tell."
If they could, they'd have a Hurricane Katrina story like everyone else. It was chronicled in The New York Times. Spurlock told the newspaper of the surreal trip she and her husband Lawrence made back to the museum in September 2005, after the figures had sat in the dark and untouched in temperatures well above 100 degrees. Amazingly, the damage to the figures was minimal, with just a little sweat — more like condensation — on their faces.
As to the fate of the figures when the museum closes next month, Key said the new owners are kicking around ideas. If they are auctioned off or donated, Spurlock would like to see some of them stay together, perhaps at the Cabildo or another museum. Wherever they end up, pieces of French Quarter history will leave when they do.
When the new condo owners move in to 917 Conti St., they'll enjoy plush living quarters, rooftop deck (with hot tub and pool), spa, fitness center and the hottest of French Quarter commodities: covered parking. For $549,000, they will have purchased a beautiful modern residence in New Orleans' oldest neighborhood.
Just without Napoleon and his bathtub.