Wednesday, October 7, 2009

World in Wax

Between my research for this summer's post on the Henderson's building at Coney Island, and my interest in Zoe Beloff's "Dreamland" exhibit, I became fascinated by the long-vanished World in Wax Musee, which stood from 1926 until the mid 1980s, run by a woman named Lillie Santangelo.

Tomorrow night, Coney Island USA will be screening the film "Lilly's World of Wax" by Tom Palazzo. In the film, Lillie herself "leads the camera on a tour of the museum," delivering "her absurd and touching stories about the figures" made of wax.

photograph: Costa Mantis, 1981

Other than Palazzo's film, very few images of the wax museum's interior exist. Luckily, photographer, filmmaker, and Coney Island USA co-founder Costa Mantis was on hand back in the 1980s to preserve Lillie's wonders. He gave me permission to reprint his rarely seen photos here. Zoe Beloff, who will also be speaking at the film tomorrow night, provided the scans.

photograph: Costa Mantis, 1981

Many of the wax figures at the museum were of murderers. Posing in their gruesome moments of homicide, there was Julio Ramirez Perez, the screwdriver killer, plunging his tool into the neck of Vera Lotito in 1948; and Richard Speck, holding a nurse bound and gagged in her white uniform (she was one of eight nurses Speck murdered in 1966).

photograph: Costa Mantis, 1981

One of the bloodiest scenes in the museum was played out by Hickman the Fox, who kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Marion Parker in 1927. In this ancient wax tableau, itself dating back to the 1920s, Hickman dismembers Marion in a bathtub, removing her internal organs and wiring her eyes open.

photograph: Costa Mantis, 1981

And perhaps the most infamous of Lillie's killers was Ruth Snyder, the "Double Indemnity" murderer, later played by Barbra Stanwyck in the Billy Wilder movie. Here, Snyder stands by her lover, Henry Judd Gray, the corset salesman she seduced into killing her husband.

photograph: Costa Mantis, 1981

The museum did not focus only on murders. It also showcased presidents of the United States, celebrities, and strange births. The two-headed baby had a starring role.

photograph: Costa Mantis, 1981

As did little Lina Medina, "the youngest confirmed mother in medical history, giving birth at the age of five years, seven months and 21 days." Here she is in 1939, lying in her hospital bed under the headline, "Baby Boy's Mother Is Baby Too."

photograph: Costa Mantis, 1981

"No exhibition devoted itself more fully to the celebration of domestic trauma than Lillie Beatrice Santangelo's World in Wax Musee," writes Amy Herzog in an essay in The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society & Its Circle.

She shares with us Santangelo's own words, from an unpublished interview, about what the World in Wax meant to her: "a wax show teaches the good things in life and also teaches that crime doesn't pay. What makes a person bad? What makes a clock tick, good or bad?"

In the old Coney, with its bizarre juxtapositions and otherwordly representations, such odd and unsettling questions could arise. What makes a bad clock tick? In the clean and easy new Coney, we may never find the answers.


Anonymous said...

I interviewed Lilly in 1982/3 for a proposed book by a young photographer, whose first name was Susan--can't remember her last name, I'll have to look it up! It was a hoot; as was the World in Wax itself!
I'll try and get there...
-- Michael Karp

Jeremiah Moss said...

michael, tell us more! what was she like?

John said...

Jesus, this is fucked up.

jodi sh. doff said...

So sad that this is gone and thank you so much for writing about it. I'd never heard of it but it seems so much more interesting than that tourist craptrap on 42nd Street...I love me a good murder reconstruction. I miss NY. sigh. I still live here and yet, I miss NY.

Goggla said...

Wow! So creepy! I'd love to see a place like this back in the city...maybe Jay Meisel could rent out his basement.

EV Grieve said...

We need more bizarre juxtapositions and otherwordly representations around here.

Anonymous said...

oh to have seen this, in situ... - BN

a said...

thanks for posting this - i need to see that movie!!!

bugpowder said...

You may also want to write about the African American wax museum run by raven chanticlear.

Anonymous said...

somehow I missed this the first time around - so good! So strange. I wish I could have seen the movie. - BN

jimmyboi2 said...

Whenever my grandmother took us to Coney Island in the 1960s, we were allowed one "sideshow" visit before settling onto our green army surplus blanket on the sand. One day we chose the wax museum... enough said !!!

Anonymous said...

This is truly warped and senseless, and shows that earlier generations of Americans were just as demented as our present one.

Anonymous said...

The wax museum in Coney Island was more frightening than a lot of the rides that were still around in the 50's. There was a tattoo parlor nearby also scary to a kid seeing grown men stripped to the waist, with ink machines and blood.

The wax museum though with its low lights and realistically gruesome depiction of horrible murders-some very current such as the recent murder of a little Puerto Rican girl, would send you back home with that imagery firmly stuck in your mind.

Anonymous said...

This place gave me nightmares for months. The quarry murder and the ice pick murder still creep me out. I went only once. On subsequent visits, I waited outside while my blood thirsty relatives went in.

Bobby G said...

I was checkin out the website NYC 1981 and saw this. In 1980 I took a Narga to Coney Island and, in front of the World of Wax, recored Lilly's carnival barker's pitch, "You'll see President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and ghosts that live in your own house!" There's more, but don't remember it right now.