World In Wax

World In Wax Musee in Coney Island, Brooklyn
The scene of the crimes

It was the summer of 1960 and my family was walking past Coney Island’s World in Wax Musee when the barker shouted out, “See the rapist Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber!” 

“What’s a rapist?” I innocently asked my mother.  

“Uh… ummm… a man who forces himself on a woman,” she flustered.  

“Oh,” I replied with no idea of what she meant. 

Soon after that we shared another awkward moment of sex education. It happened one night while I was watching TV. She and her friends were in the next room chain smoking and “gassing” when someone on TV mentioned “impotence.” 

“Hey, Ma, what’s impotence?” I shouted into the room full of Catholic housewives.  

Long frozen silence from the stunned women.

“Unable to perform like a man,” my mother eventually shouted in answer.  

“Oh,” I shouted in return and (again) with no idea what she meant. 

Caryl Chessman in a wax museum gas chamber.
Caryl Chessman, darling of the liberal intelligentsia,
as I like to remember him.

The World In Wax Musee was owned by one of Coney Island’s great characters, Lillie Santangelo. Caryl Chessman wasn’t the only predatory sex fiend rendered in wax in Lillie’s macabre collection. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were in there, too; along with “full moon” killers, “vampire” killers, “bathtub” killers, “screwdriver” killers and Richard Speck the sub-human filth who tortured, raped and murdered eight student nurses in Chicago. Speck escaped Chessman’s fate but unfortunately enjoyed his life in prison. He even had a half-assed sex change and acquired a set of phoney tits. These helped him attract and suck every swinging Black dick he could get his lips around. 

Richard Speck – isn’t she lovely?
Unrepentant to his/her/its grave.

Chessman and Speck both had scores of bleeding-heart intellectuals, rootless cosmopolitans and Hollywood champagne-socialists pleading their cases and screaming for their release. But, to no avail. Both of these pieces of utter shit died behind bars. Hehehe. 

Richard Speck attacking nurse in Coney Island wax museum.
“Please let me out. I promise not to do it again.”

Meanwhile, back at the Wax Musee, Lillie also had an entire exhibit dedicated to Lina Medina, the world’s youngest mother, a Peruvian girl who gave birth at the age of five. The jury is still out on which of her loving male relatives raped the child.  

Lina Medina
I’ll bet my mother was relieved I didn’t ask her how
a little girl of five could have a baby.

Fast forward to 1981

I was directing an off-Broadway play and told my designer that I’d like our stage set to look and feel like the World in Wax Musee because it was the most frightening space I’d ever been in. The brutal artlessness of the exhibits made it so. Its dioramas-of-death captured a bottom-feeder, off-hand brand of sex-violence that even the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer could not match. 

It was the very cheapness of the materials and mannequins used that gave the murder scenes their terrible power. The ill-fitting clothes and ill-posed limbs evoked nothing of reality. Yet, it was this very absence of life, movement or any hint of reality that made the mannequins seem ready to burst into murderous life. It was the gouts of ketchup-like blood splattered on the walls and linoleum; the flickering fluorescent lights and the chicken wire that separated the viewer from the crime scenes that chilled to the bone.  

There was something especially unsettling about a cheap dummy sticking a screwdriver into another cheap dummy’s neck or hiding under a female dummy’s bed. It was beyond the stuff of nightmares. 

Bloody wax head

Lillie also had a Hall of Fame where you really needed a score card to tell the players apart. I suspect Lillie had only one Caucasian head mould and one Negro head mould coz Elvis looked like Harry Truman looked like John Glenn looked like Popeye. And, Muhammad Ali looked like Jackie Robinson looked like Louis Armstrong looked like Buckwheat.

Don’t tell me… James Dean. No, Harry Truman. Wait, got it… LBJ.

Anyway… my designer visited the Musee and later cursed me for scarring her for life. While there, she spoke with Lillie who mentioned that she needed a new recorded announcement to draw a crowd but didn’t know any actors who could make one. Her budget was $10. My designer told Lillie about me and that’s how I got to spend an afternoon wandering around the World in Wax Musee (by my lonesome) gathering ideas and composing my spiel. (I have never looked over my shoulder so many times in my life!) P.S. I did the gig for free.

Lillie let me sit in her office to write my script. I noticed that she had a large ashtray on her desk filled with artificial eyes, ears and fingers that had been plucked or melted off. (I confess that I stole one of the fingers. I like to think it came from the hand of Red Foxx but it might have belonged to Hickman the Fox who kidnapped, murdered and dismembered a child in 1927.) 

Hickman the Fox in a Coney Island wax museum.
Note the exquisite craftsmanship.
The verisimilitude.

Lillie didn’t play my recording for long because she shut the Musee’s doors soon after my visit. (Jeez, I didn’t think I was that bad!) But, I wasn’t surprised when she cIosed. I had been there on a summer weekend and I’d had the Musee to myself for hours. Lillie had even tried throwing a few phrases of Spanish and Ebonics into her pitch in an attempt to draw in Coney’s new demographic but, alas, it was not to be. The writing was on the Musee wall.   

In 1986, Lillie’s entire collection was sold at auction for a tidy sum – there has always been a lucrative market for circus and side show collectibles. And, her Musee was second in size and importance only to Madame Tussaud’s in London! Along with the dioramas-of-death, 100 wax heads found in Lillie’s attic were also sold. The auction catalogue listed heads of Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra. But, how could they tell?  Those heads could easily have been Leopold and Loeb or Abbott and Costello.

Boy outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as an eBook and paperback
amazon.com
amazon.co.uk
And as an eBook here
https://books2read.com/The-Boy-Outa-Brooklyn
 

The Viking Giant

Johann K. Petursson, The Icelandic Giant.
Johann K. Petursson and his lunch.

That same year, I see the freak show at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus held in the old Madison Square Garden where Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano fight. It’s where Emile Griffith from the Virgin Islands kills the Cuban Benny “Kid” Paret. At the weigh-in, Benny calls Emile a “maricon” – that’s spic-talk for faggot. In Round 12, Paret is out on his feet but trapped in a corner and held up by the ropes. The homosexual Griffith shows no mercy. Remember what I told you about our dusky brothers not liking each other? Remember what I told you about boxing promoters feasting on that hatred? The Garden reeks of that bloody history. And, with the circus in town, it reeks of lion piss and elephant dung. (Henry Miller, like me a Brooklyn boy, wanted an English language that reeked of lion piss and elephant dung. I doubt Henry ever smelled them in combination. The stench stung my eyeballs and melted the enamel from my teeth!) 

The Ringling freak show features sword-swallowers, snake-handlers, fire-eaters, bullwhip-crackers, knife-throwers, fat men, skinny men, rubber men, a family of albino midgets and the star of the show – Johann K. Petursson, the Icelandic Giant – the Tallest Man in the World. Johann is no sissy giant, no puny, pituitary-gland pussy he. Johann is a true giant – 8’ 8” tall and brawny with a bear pelt draped over his shoulder. 

Johann wears a tall Viking helmet with horns as tribute to his forebears and to make himself look even taller. My father buys me one of Johann’s green plastic rings as souvenir.  The giant places it on his finger for a moment as consecration. I can fit all five of my five-year-old fingers inside it. I still have that ring.

Johann K. Petursson souvenir ring as sold at Coney Island and Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The Sacred Relic
Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and eBook
amazon.com
amazon.co.uk
And as an eBook here

Freak-O-Rama

Vintage freak show banner depicting two-headed baby as seen at Coney Island
Facsimile = an ancient, dusty, wax model floating in a filthy jar filled with formaldehyde

Coney Island is where I see my first freak show. I am five and my father holds me up to see the stage. Outside the tent, a painted banner depicts a ferocious man with a head shaped like a ten-foot-wide light bulb. But, inside the tent, the meek, sickly man on-stage has only a slightly swollen head. He drives a nail up his nose to try and compensate for his disappointing deformity. My father explains that the man has a disease and the show is a gyp. There is also a woman on-stage who has dry, scaly skin. Outside she is depicted crawling through a swamp on all fours – a woman’s head on the body of an alligator. But, inside – no such luck. Another gyp.

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: The smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and eBook amazon.com
amazon.co.uk
And as an eBook here