Since he took over as general manager for the new owners of Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park five months ago, Ronald Fong has projected nothing but executive aplomb.
This aura of calm, however, seems to fly in the face of Movieland’s recent history. The wax museum’s attendance plummeted even lower last year--to 440,000 from its 1976 high of 1 million--and the tourist-attraction industry in general, the Disney parks included, remains shaken by increased competition and fiscal uncertainty.
Nevertheless, Fong, whose small San Francisco firm last April announced the purchase of the 23-year-old Movieland for $5.3 million from the Six Flags conglomerate, depicts the situation as downright hopeful.
“We bought Movieland because it’s still a choice piece of property and we believe we can turn things around. Attendance is already running at a better clip than this time last summer,” said the 39-year-old Fong, a partner in the F & P Operations firm headed by his father.
“We know Movieland isn’t one of the big boys. We can’t compete head to head with Disneyland or Knott’s (Berry Farm, which is located nearby on Beach Boulevard). But we believe there will always be a place on the tourist circuit for our kind of attraction.”
However, Fong and other waxworks entrepreneurs admit that their kind of museum show --which dates back to the 18th Century and is based on the ancient art of beeswax sculpting --is not a business with an especially vast appeal.
According to Fong, in the early 1970s, when modern full-scale wax museums were the most numerous, there were no more than 30 major waxworks in the world, including the most famous of all, Madame Tussaud’s in London. The number of such major museums today is down to about 15, he said.
Since Movieland’s sister complex, the Stars Hall of Fame in Orlando, Fla., was shut down last year by Six Flags, Movieland in Buena Park is considered the only big waxworks that is devoted wholly to movie, television and recording stars.
The Fong family’s entry into the field came rather casually 21 years ago. Ronald’s father, Thomas, a successful jeweler in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and his partners had purchased a vacant warehouse at Fisherman’s Wharf and were casting about for tenants.
“My father met this man who had run a small wax museum at the Seattle world’s fair--about 50 figures, the usual mixture of historical and movie-star people,” recalled Ronald. “My father decided to bring that whole attraction to our warehouse. He figured it would fit in well with the whole tourist atmosphere of the wharf.”
The waxworks opened at the wharf site in 1964, but the show lasted only three months. “It turned out this guy (waxworks operator) was having tax problems with Canadian authorities, and the next thing we knew, he left, taking his figures with him,” said Ronald.
Sold on the wax museum concept, Thomas Fong went straight to Tussaud’s for help. “Tussaud’s had just started a subsidiary that made and sold figures to other operators,” said Ronald. “We ordered 150 of them--at $900 apiece --and we were back in business.”
The San Francisco operation, called the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, now has 270 figures --including political and religious celebrities and a King Tut set--and its own wax-sculpting staff.
The Fong family has since added side attractions at the wharf site, including an “Enchanted World of Old San Francisco,” complete with mini-cable car ride, fun house and gift shops. (Attendance at the San Francisco complex runs about 300,000 a year.)
In Movieland, F & P has taken over a venture that has had its share of glories and pratfalls.
Opened in 1962 at a cost of $1.5 million by movie-buff entrepreneur Allen Parkinson, Movieland had a glittering send-off. The museum, then offering 60 movie-star figures, was dedicated by a blue-ribbon Hollywood contingent headed by the screen’s dowager queen, Mary Pickford.
Over the next decade, Movieland flourished with the rest of the theme-attraction industry. By 1973, three years after Six Flags bought the complex, Movieland offered more than 100 figures and dozens of movie and television sets. Its success led to the opening of Six Flags’ copycat enterprise, the Stars Hall of Fame.
By the 1980s, however, the national recession and the increasing competition from other entertainment forms had sent many theme attractions, including Disneyland, into an attendance tailspin. At Movieland itself, turnstile totals tumbled from a high of 1 million in 1976 to 800,000 in 1981 and 440,000 in 1984. And early last year, Six Flags sent the word out: it wanted to sell the museum.
Besides the Fongs, there were other bidders, chiefly Spoony Singh, owner of the Hollywood Wax Museum, the 21-year-old Hollywood Boulevard center that offers political and religious celebrities, as well as screen stars. When the Six Flags sale to F & P Operations was announced last April 2, Singh immediately filed suit in Orange County Superior Court, contesting the transaction. (His suit, said Singh recently, while still in a pre-hearing phase, remained “in the works.”)
As Movieland’s new general manager, Ronald Fong wasted little time in what he called an operational streamlining. The regular work force was cut from 130 to 90, mostly affecting the administrative staff.
“They (Six Flags) are a big nationwide corporation. They had brought a lot of--shall we say --corporate layers here,” said Fong. “We don’t need that.We’re a family-sized operation.” Thanks to expanded gift-shop and fast-food areas, he added, Movieland’s gross sales were running 30% higher than they were last summer.
As a brand-new tourist lure, F & P plans to open its new “Chamber of Horrors” in late October for the Halloween weekend. Billed as a scary mix of movie sets (“The Exorcist,” “Psycho”) and fun house-style illusions, the $250,000 chamber, Fong said, will be far less costly to operate and maintain than the chamber’s predecessor, the “Black Box,” a special-effects attraction that cost Six Flags $1 million to install two years ago.
But the heart of the operation remains the waxen celebrity surrogates.
“There’s been a lull in new (wax) figures here. They (Six Flags) had put in only a handful in the past several years,” said Fong. “We want to pick up the pace. We want to generate new excitement here.”
Currently on display are 175 figures on 101 sets, ranging from Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in “Taming of the Shrew” to Christopher Reeve as “Superman.” Two figures of Ronald Reagan--as a Hollywood movie sheriff and as President in a White House setting--were installed last winter.
Nearly all the figures have been created by Logan Fleming, the former house sculptor at Movieland, who also sculpted the nearly 200 figures that had been housed in the Stars Hall of Fame.
“You can count on one hand the real top sculptors in this field in the whole world. This has never been a well-populated (artistic) field, you know,” said Fong, who has hired David Cellitti from the San Francisco museum to sculpt the new Movieland reproductions.
Cellitti’s first Movieland effort was unveiled last July: a Michael Jackson look-alike. His version of the vampish television hostess Elvira is to be installed for the “Chamber of Horrors” opening.
The waxworks business isn’t inexpensive. The typical figure now costs about $3,000, said Fong. The whole wax sculpting, plus coloring and costuming, is a painstaking process that can take two months. At Movieland in recent years, the prices of costumes have ranged from $1,000 to $6,000--the “Hello, Dolly” gown for Barbra Streisand was $3,500. The most lavish sets, such as the “Star Trek” and “Poseidon Adventure” tableaux, cost about $50,000 each.
Sizing up the actual stars is something else. Only a few stars have sat for measurement or posing sessions for Movieland. These have included Burt Reynolds, Charlton Heston, Gene Kelly, Jerry Lewis, Gloria Swanson and Mae West. Movieland used measurements taken of Michael Jackson last year in Orlando by the Stars Hall of Fame staff.
Most Movieland figures, however, are based on photographs and on life masks and measurements supplied by Hollywood wardrobe agencies. In Reagan’s case, Movieland aides said they relied on the President’s Beverly Hills tailor for the accurate measurements. (The President donated one of his own dark suits to be used in the White House tableau, Movieland aides added.)
No matter what the technical and cost changes, said Fong, little has changed in the waxworks’ basic appeal since Marie Tussaud first amazed English audiences in the early 19th Century with her wax versions of Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.
This appeal, argued Fong, is still based on curiosity and a sense of intimacy.
“Most celebrities are so remote. But places like ours give people a chance to feel nearer to them,” said Fong, as he watched a small crowd of Movieland patrons staring at Michael Jackson’s wax double--which is costumed in black suit, shirt and loafers, a pair of sparkling socks and an equally sparkling right-hand glove.
Some of the patrons debated whether the figure is lifelike. Others moved up as close as they could to the figure, as if wanting to touch it.
Observed Fong with an entrepreneur’s smile: “See what I mean, they want to get as near as they can. They want to look him right in the eyes, maybe even to speak to him.”