“C & W Wax Museum Set for Nashville”
That was a headline in the July 16, 1969, issue of Cash Box, a leading trade paper for the Country Music industry. The two column article had a photo of me: “Aurora Publishing, Inc., newly formed Nashville corporation, announced it will establish the nation’s first Country Music Wax Museum here.
“Displaying full life-size figures honoring the stars of the past and present in the country music world, the Museum will represent an investment of ‘several hundred thousand dollars.’… The idea for the Country Music Wax Museum was presented to Aurora by Thurston Moore, who originated The Country Music Who’s Who, which he sold recently to Record World. He is retained as Editor-in-Chief of the annual. … Roupen S. Gulbenk, President of Aurora, said, ‘Mr. Moore will be a consultant and advisor to Aurora in the Wax Museum project.’”
I had always had great interest in wax museums and visited several of them in the United States, including the celebrated Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and the magnificent Movieland Wax Museum and Palace of Living Art Museum in Buena Park, California.
I was acquainted with Kenneth R. Bunn, a sculptor in Colorado, and we gave him the contract for producing the figures. He made several trips to Nashville, and my extensive file of photos of the country stars were invaluable to the project.
The museum opened across the street from the Grand Ole Opry House. This gave the Opry-goers the opportunity to visit the museum before and after the Opry show. There were more than 60 artists featured in the museum, so it really was a “Who’s Who” of country music.
The glassed-in sets were kept at 72 degrees to provide maximum protection for the figures. Clothing and musical instruments were given by the stars themselves, or by their heirs. I remember Johnnie Wright, husband of Kitty Wells, calling me in Denver and asking if I would take care of the outfits for him and his partner, Jack Anglin, for their wax figures. He knew there was a leading western wear shop in Denver. He sent me their sizes, and Georgianna and I had fun picking out their suits, shirts, boots, etc.
The museum later moved to Music Row and was owned by my very close friend, Daniel Hsu; it was very successful for many years. Eventually the attractions disappeared on Music Row, including the Wax Museum, Barbara Mandrell Country, and the Willie Nelson General Store.
In 1970, I saw an ad in Antique Trader for more than 50,000 movie stills, lobby cards, 8 x 10s, etc., owned by Barkley’s Museum in Taylor, Missouri. That gave me the idea of creating a Movie Museum featuring this material and wax figures. I discussed my ideas with my friend Rock Gunter, who lived on Lookout Mountain, overlooking Denver. His fantastic home was just a short distance from the grave and museum of William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill.
I knew Rock when he was a performer and disc jockey at WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. In 1950, he had a No. 1 song on the charts: “Birmingham Bounce.” WWVA was third in sales of my Country Music Scrapbooks in the 1950s and ’60s, and Rock was one of the hundreds of DJs who hawked the books on their nightly program. The station was also the home of the WWVA Jamboree, one of the largest country Saturday night shows in the nation.
Rock Gunter in his studio.
Rock became a successful insurance executive and was intrigued with my plans and asked if he could be a partner. We shook hands, and I went to Missouri and bought the movie collection!
Then what do we do with it? Someone suggested Estes Park, Colorado, the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park, about 65 miles from Denver. After a couple of trips, we bought an old two-story building that housed a laundromat, and we turned it into the beautiful and impressive MOVIE WAX MUSEUM, with wax figures and movie memorabilia.
We had it for several years, and our son, Marc Byron, managed it. One summer, my friend Ray Rowland’s son, who was also named Mark (but spelled with a k), and his girlfriend, managed the museum. Sadly, in 1983, Mark was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Marc Byron studied the wax figures, and before long he became a fine wax sculptor. His figures of John Wayne and W.C. Fields are among the best. Many weekends Georgianna and I took over and enjoyed our time there. We eventually sold it; the remaining movie memorabilia, lobby cards, posters, etc, I sold for $15,000 to a young man in Texas. That collection today would bring several times that.
John McClure II, who lived in Denver, was a good friend and a very talented artist. He suggested that he create some dioramas for the museum, and I thought those would be something different, the likes of which I had never seen in other wax museums. The first one he did was an exact replica of a 1913 Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company silent movie set. This is a great work of art, and it is set into the wall in our living room. It is approximately 30 inches by 50 inches and 24 inches deep.
John McClure’s diorama of the 1913 movie set.
John created a very interesting diorama depicting the infamous John Dillinger, the famous bank robber, who was shot and killed in front of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, July 22, 1934. The movie he went to see with his girl – “the lady in red” - was “Manhattan Melodrama” starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy.
We became friends with Ward Crowley, who owned the motel where we stayed on weekends, and he had a rare $25,000 collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia. We made a display of his collection in the museum, and when John saw it, it gave him the idea of creating a diorama of Dealey Plaza where Kennedy was shot. I gave John $5,000 and commissioned him to create the diorama.
John McClure working on his diorama of Dealey Plaza.
Far from being an example of cute craftsmanship, the facsimile model is based on actual photographs and a film of the assassination, plus 400 snapshots of the plaza taken during two visits to Dallas by the McClure family, during which John “crawled around Dealey Plaza with a hundred-foot tape measure,” noting distances and angles and measuring the lane stripes on Elm Street.
He talked with key eyewitnesses, including an Associated Press photographer present during the assassination, and newspaper editor Penn Jones, Jr., who advised him not to become involved lest he became “hung-up” on the assassination for the rest of his life. Fortunately for students of the Presidential killing, John McClure ignored Jones’ sage advice. The result was an exacting model of breathtaking accuracy, which gives much needed perspectives on the assassination site.
The more he worked on the diorama, the more John got caught up in the shooting, and when it was completed, he believed that with his diorama he could prove that the Kennedy shooting was part of a conspiracy. He contacted the CIA in Washington, D.C., and they sent two agents to Denver to see the diorama and talk to John. I was there during that visit; I wish I had taken a recorder! The CIA agents were reserved, of course, and didn’t want to say much, but they were completely captivated by John’s explanation and demonstrations. They were there for almost two hours, and I wish I could remember what really transpired.
That was the only model in the world, in minute detail, showing the exact moment when President Kennedy was shot. Over 300 figures in the diorama are people who were actually there, all identified from photographs. John spent more than 1,200 hours making this historical diorama. The scale is 1/8´´ to a foot, and the model measures a full six feet square. John made a major contribution to the study of the assassination – by adding the third graphic dimension - depth.
In 1975, a book was published in Australia entitled PROOF OF CONSPIRACY In the Assassination of President Kennedy, written by Ian MacFarlane; it was printed in Hong Kong. In that book is John’s story of the diorama and a large photo of him looking into the diorama.
In a letter dated March 18, 1975, John wrote Ian: “I entered on the project quite naively and came out convinced of a conspiracy. Despite the multitude of photographs and movies taken in Dealey Plaza, in the minutes before and after the assassination of President Kennedy – some of which strangely “disappeared” forever into the files of the FBI and other agencies – it is often difficult to get an overall picture of what happened, and where. Photographs are two-dimensional and, depending on the type of lens used, distances and objects can be compressed or otherwise distorted.”
I had the model in Nashville, and Daniel Hsu was going to make a room for it at his Music Row Mall. It was stored there for a while, and mysteriously it was destroyed. You figure that out!
Aubrey Mayhew, a friend from my country music days, was a JFK collector, and it was he who bought the Texas School Book Depository at auction in 1970. Georgianna and I had a trade show in Dallas, at a time when the building was vacant. While there, I went to see the city manager; I knew he had met John when he was in Dallas, and I knew the building was kept locked, but I asked him if I could possibly get into the building and go to the floor where Oswald committed the crime of the century.
He took me to the building, and we went to the sixth floor on an old rickety freight elevator. We walked a short distance in the half dark before he pointed to a window and said, “That’s where Oswald knelt and fired the gun.”
I cannot tell of my feelings at that moment when I knelt at that window and looked out on Dealey Plaza, reliving that fateful day of November 22, 1963.
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