Thursday, July 12, 2018

Photo Essay: The Myths, Legends, Heroes, and Terrors of Tijuana... In Wax

Once I get something in my head, it can be nearly impossible to get rid of it.

And I had it in my head that I was desperate to visit the wax museum in Tijuana.

It's not just that wax museums are a dying breed (at least, those that aren't Madame Tussaud's)...

...but also that Tijuana is changing so rapidly that maybe such an outmoded cultural institution might give way to a local craft brewery or artisanal screenprinting shop.

By nature, most independent wax museums are somewhat alarming—and this one in Tijuana was no exception, having posted a warning for anyone with medical issues to proceed with caution (especially as the first diorama in wax is a depiction of an Aztec human sacrifice).

But I suppose much of history itself is alarming.

And to be true to Mexico's history, you've got to include Aztec warriors (like Cuauhtémoc), explorers (Cristóbal Colón a.k.a. Christopher Columbus) and their colonial financiers, and conquistadors like Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.

There are the heroes of the Mexican War of Independence (from Spain), like El Pípila (a.k.a. Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro)...

...and Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla...

...and other revolutionaries like Venustiano Carranza, and even Pancho Villa.

Of course, you'd expect to see more recent Mexican presidents like Vicente Fox...

...though former U.S. President JFK was not nearly as recognizable as the wax rendition of Clinton or Obama (even though Barack, one of the newest additions to the collection, looked more like a political cartoon version of him).

Funny enough, many of the world leaders at the Museum of Wax in Tijuana look like they're posing for a mugshot—not only Mikhail Gorbachev but also Fidel Castro. The Ayatollah Khomeini looked surprisingly at home. (And it turns out I've got some brushing up to do on Iran's historical presence in Mexico.)

And let's not forget about religious figures, such as padre Junípero Serra and even Papa Juan Pablo II (a.k.a Pope John Paul II).

Only a fraction of these figures would you ever see in any other wax museum—including the mother of Tijuana herself, Tia Juana (or "Aunt Jane"), who may or may not have actually existed and who may or may not have been the proprietress of a local rancho.

Of mythic proportions is also, of course, the legend of Juan Soldado (a.k.a. Juan Castillo Morales, a soldier in the Mexican army)—the patron saint of border crossings, if there ever was one. (And his likeness in wax is a faithful tribute to how he is honored in shrines elsewhere.)

Mexican folklore is brought to life in an even more epic way in the museum's Hall of Terrors, where you'll find Freddy Krueger, a werewolf (or "The Werewolf," perhaps)...


...La Llorona (whose cries for her lost children you must beware)...

...a sorceress...

...The Crypt-Keeper or at least a distant cousin, and other less fortunate souls who have found themselves trapped in a Mexican dungeon with the creakiest floors you've ever heard.

It's a fine place to spend an hour or so, as long as you pay attention to how it tells the story of Mexico... and not how the wax figure of Madonna (the "La Isla Bonita" one, not the Virgin of Guadalupe) doesn't look a bit like her.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: America's First Black History Wax Museum
Photo Essay: Hollywood in Wax
Photo Essay: Curiosity Crawl at Dapper Cadaver
A Warm Welcome Back to Mexico (Bienvenida a México)

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Photo Essay: Farewell to The Breakers Hotel As We Know It

In typical fashion, when I heard The Sky Room at the top of the former Breakers Hotel was closing—perhaps for two years, perhaps forever—I hightailed it down to Long Beach to check it out before it was too late.

The former hotel had already been more or less inaccessible to the public since it had converted into senior housing in 1990.

But as 2015, even the seniors had been kicked out—and upon my visit in April this year, the letters spelling "RETIREMENT COMMUNITY"had been stripped off the front entryway.

At first, it seemed like a good thing. Developers had signed up to return this oceanfront landmark to its original purpose.

So, I set out to document the "before," thinking I'd post a photo essay sometime in 2020 once it was completed and I could include some "after" shots.

But I don't think anybody was prepared for the gutting of the interior that would ensue—or the estate sale of historical artifacts to include everything from antique hair dryer chairs to original bannisters.

So, in light of the physical history we're losing this week—with bits and pieces going to individual collectors and profiteers rather than remaining in situ or being transferred to an archive or publicly accessible cultural institution—here's some of what I glimpsed that day.

The Sky Room had a dedicated entrance down a driveway on the west wing of the building, a means of entry that circumvented the front door...

...but also gave a taste of the majesty of this 1926 luxury resort that had somehow managed to survive the Great Depression and the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

In 1938, Conrad Hilton rescued it out of bankruptcy—marking the start of the hotel's "glory years"—and opened the Sky Room, a celebrity magnet if there ever was one.

And it remained a popular gathering spot throughout Hilton's tenure, despite having been used for some harbor defense during World War II.

Despite Walker & Eisen's "ultra-Spanish" design of the rest of the hotel and a bried stint as a Polynesian paradise, the Sky Room returned to an Art Deco/Gatsby sort of flair upon the 1986-7 renovation—a style it continued to retain 80 years after its original opening.

But its recent closure should come as no surprise to anyone who knows a bit of the topsy-turvy history of The Breakers—which has been converted back and forth between a hotel and retirement home more than once over the years.

Yet somehow, some intriguing architectural details seem to have remained throughout the property changing hands time and again.

That is, until now.

At least the waterfront view will be in tact, at least for the time being. But the planters on the patio are for sale.

Maybe the vintage mail chutes are, too.

After dining in the Sky Room and getting an eyeful at the top of Breakers, I decided to head down—first to the individual accommodations, which really had nothing left in them, and next to what had become the seniors' dining area.

There were still hints of its former elegance...

...and peekaboo moments of long-gone luster...

...but mostly, all that remained was a cafeteria.

Down on the ground level was a different matter—though the so-called Crystal Room was largely vacant, it had held onto its piano...

...a piece or two of non-original furniture...

...some chandeliers that appear to be of an older vintage than the crystal ones added in the 1980s...

...and the restored plaster ceiling.

It feels like a shame because this is the hotel whose illuminated "B" helped a lost Charles Lindbergh land his plane in Long Beach in 1928—and where Elizabeth Taylor spent her wedding night with her first husband, "Nicky" Hilton (Conrad Sr.'s son), in 1950.

But for its brief stints of popularity, it always seems to have been under-appreciated.

Will erasing traces of the octagenarian's history change that?

I guess we'll find out in a couple of years. 

Related Posts:
Breathing New Life Into the Eyesores of Downtown LA

Miracle on Wilshire Boulevard: From Growing Beans to Counting Beans (from PBSSoCal)

I was honored when PBS SoCal asked me to opine on what makes Wilshire Boulevard—one of its "10 Streets That Changed America"—so remarkable.

I was torn between the Art Deco theatres (including the Hollywood temple that's essentially a theatre) and the Art Deco department stores, but ultimately, I chose the latter.

And that's how I learned that the first dedicated left-turn lane in the U.S. was created on Wilshire to make it easier for motorists to pull off the road and spend some money.

To find out more of what makes Wilshire Boulevard "miraculous," read the blog post here or click the screenshot below.

Highlights include:

Bullocks Wilshire (now Southwestern Law School)

The May Company (soon to be the Academy Museum)


Seibu/Orbach's Department Store (now the Petersen Automotive Museum)

Related Posts:
A Different Story to Tell
How to Rose Parade—Featured on
Unearthing Green Burial from Its Obscurity