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Hot Springs, Arkansas

Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum

This quirky Arkansas wax museum does not shy away from the macabre and the grotesque.  

The Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum may not have the polish of the 200-year-old Madame Tussauds, but it has character. And a lot of gore.

Located in the resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, this collection of over 100 wax creations is owned and operated by the Roberts family, who occasionally add new figures. Hot Springs is part of Hot Springs National Park, which has been famous for its mineral-rich water since the 19th century. The museum honors the town’s past with a waxworks display of the Southern Club, a casino beloved by Al Capone that operated from 1894-1967, as well as a two-room exhibit of memorabilia and newspaper clippings pertaining to the area’s gambling history.

George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush stand in the window of the gift shop, next to a sign that reminds you to keep your ticket stub for discounts on other local attractions. THEY SEEM ALIVE, promises another sign. Visitors are welcomed by “The Stairway of Stars,” an escalator featuring figures including Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Carter. At the top of the stairs is a smiling Pope John Paul II, a display of the Last Supper, and “The Pieta.”

The museum has “Seven Magic Worlds,” from “The World of Religion” to “The World of Horrors” and “The Hall of Battles,” which is presided over by Napoleon. And it does not shy away from the macabre and the grotesque. “The World of Horrors” includes a tableau of “Torture by the Pendulum” and a number of glassy-eyed, mutilated corpses and decapitated heads. The display “Legends of Myth and Horror” features a werewolf and Frankenstein.

The effect of moving from one of these “Seven Magic Worlds” to the next is jarring. One moment, you’re looking at the Kennedys and the Clintons; the next, you stand in front of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, Henry VIII, and an aged Elizabeth I (and a glass case of reproduction crowns). Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Mark Twain are arranged in the scene “A Writer and his Creation.” Also in attendance are Steve McQueen and his motorcycle, Jesse James, and Abraham Lincoln—with John Wilkes Booth standing behind him at the theater, his gun drawn.

But the scenes also feel simultaneous—in part because the music from each one blends into the next. While listening to a recording of President Obama, you can also hear the classical music of “The Royal Grand Hall.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice is layered with Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, which then gives way to Elvis singing “Love Me Tender.” “Yo Ho, Yo Ho! A Pirate’s Life For Me” plays as you approach Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean, but then this jaunty tune is replaced by classical music and an enchanted forest of fairy tale characters arranged on AstroTurf. Cinderella surveys her pumpkin carriage, Pinocchio looks out the window of Geppetto’s toy shop, and a terrifying Queen of Hearts yells at Alice. The next room is entirely devoted to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In this cave of sparkling fake stone, Dopey and Sleepy stand over a taxidermy faun.

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