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The Eden Musee


Harry Buschman

The boardwalk was an elevated promenade above the dirty sand of Coney Island. It was originally built for strolling in the bright summer sunshine or beneath the stars. Under the boardwalk was another world, a dark and shadowy world that trafficked in man's most carnal hankerings.

The only wheeled vehicles allowed on the boardwalk were wicker rickshaws rented by people who wished to sit and be pushed. They were built for two and had colorful parasols to shade the riders from the sun.

On one side of the boardwalk was sand, sea and sky; on the other side were places of enjoyment. There were beer halls, bingo parlors, and bawdy houses. Man's appetites and baser instincts as well as his love of the sea could be satisfied in the clean and bracing air of Coney Island.

The four great establishments at Coney Island were Steeplechase, Luna Park, Nathan's and the roller coaster called the "Cyclone." They catered to our love of thrills and our insatiable hunger and thirst. America was a younger nation then, far less educated, wildly optimistic and blind to the mortgage that would soon come due. We strolled the boardwalk, 'made out', and sang ....

Has anybody here seen Kelly . . .
Kelly with the green necktie?


Who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder?
Nobody answered so he hollered all the louder.

Although few of us who enjoyed Coney Island realized it, some people worked for a living there. Frivolity was a full time business, and a resourceful man could earn a living gratifying the cravings of his fellow man.

I worked at the Eden Musee. A house of waxwork figures frozen forever in moments of agony and ecstasy. The original Eden Musee in midtown Manhattan, (until it burned down) was a major attraction for nearly fifty years. It was a far more educational 'Musee' than the one at Coney Island. It presented tableaus depicting the "Signing of the Declaration of Independence," "Lincoln's Gettysburg Address," and "Moses Parting the Waters;" uplifting tableaus with life-like figures caught in climactic moments of mankind's history. But the one at Coney Island concentrated on man's darker side -- "Jack the Ripper," "Lizzie Borden," and "The Crushing of the Slaves by the Shah's Kneeling Elephants." Leonard Sutton owned the Musee at Coney Island. He had a part interest in the original one in Manhattan, and when it burned down he started his own Musee with his share of the insurance money. There is nothing more definitive than a fire in a wax museum.

Leonard was a gentle man in speech, ill suited for the bloodshed and carnage that was his stock in trade at the Eden Musee. In the scatological, sexual and sacrilegious language of the Midway, I never heard Leonard say anything racier than "Jeez-um" when something went wrong. Profanity at best is relatively cheap and non-creative. After recreating Jack-the-Ripper and Lizzie Borden I think Leonard tried to atone by avoiding foul language.

Wax figures consist of little more than a head and hands. When you're dealing with an image of Lincoln, the head must look like Lincoln, but the hands can be anyone's; no one would recognize Lincoln's hands. The artist must search for someone who has a superficial facial resemblance to Lincoln, make a facial plaster cast of him and then pour in flesh colored molten wax. From then on it's glass eyes, a wig, stage make-up and costuming. Other than his luckless victims, no one knew Jack-the-Ripper and no one could pick Lizzie Borden out of a police line-up either.

Leonard's conception of Jack-the-Ripper bore a remarkable resemblance to Lon Chaney in "The Phantom of the Opera," and the less said about his victims the better. The Shah's partially crushed slaves could only be recognized as human by their nightmarish faces frozen in agony. On the other hand, Lizzie Borden always reminded me of Mrs. Sutton, or Minnie Mae, as he called her. All of us believed it was Leonard's subtle method of retaliation for her non-stop nagging. On a small card framed and hung on the side panel of the exhibit Leonard hung those immortal words:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
and gave her mother forty whacks,
and when she saw what she had done
she gave her father forty-one.

Minnie Mae manned the ticket booth on weekends, but she was apt to drop in unannounced and surprise us, (particularly Leonard, who had an eye for the ladies.)

Ladies were particularly vulnerable to the nauseating tableaus found in the Eden Musee. The more robust of the ladies frequently threw up strenuously, but young and fragile girls would invariably swoon. I was always on hand with a bucket and a mop for the former, but the latter were personally attended to by Leonard. He would fan them and murmur words of consolation, then attempt to lead them into his office where they might lie down and recover. He was fairly successful, but nine successes out of ten is a poor average in the sport of adultery. It is always the tenth that brings the house down on you, for on the tenth, Minnie Mae was sure to appear with her umbrella at the ready, looking for all the world like Lizzie Borden.

I learned many things there; the concept of shock, stage technique and the complicated technology of wax effigies. I even helped a few young and fragile maidens into Leonard's office when he was not there. This was the greatest learning experience of all, because knowing Leonard was close behind, I knew speed was absolutely necessary. My learning experience came to a bitter end -- and so did the Eden Musee, not by fire but by the fury of a woman betrayed.

Some of us were uncertain as to why Leonard decided to devote one of his future dioramas to Lady Godiva. While she was a tough enough lady in her day, a female activist with long blond hair and a body a man might risk his reputation for, she wasn't what you'd expect to see in this particular Eden Musee. There was no decapitation .... no dismemberment. She was naked too, and that meant Leonard would have to find a body as well as a head. Mrs. Sutton, well past forty, had been around the block a few times, so to speak, and the thought of her riding naked to Coventry was grotesque.

"It's gonna be one of the swooners," I mentioned to Felix. Felix took care of the johns and dusted the exhibits.

"He ain't got the noive."

"Sure he does, when Mrs. Sutton goes up to the Catskills, he'll do it then. Just you wait and see."

Minnie Mae Sutton always went to the Catskills after Labor Day weekend. Business fell off at the Eden Musee, kids went back to school and Nathan's boarded up its outdoor beer garden. This was also the time for Leonard to make plans for next year's season. I was sure that's when he'd get going on Lady Godiva.

Labor Day came and went, and the following Wednesday I noticed two women in stylish blue suits and a man wearing a derby hat standing in front of the Shah's crushing of the slaves. The women were apparently sisters, and the taller of them was the lady friend of the man in the derby hat. It was difficult for them to tear their eyes from the scene of horror -- they stayed there transfixed, unable to leave. The taller woman, threw up mightily. My attention was drawn to the shorter, prettier girl who had her hand to her mouth. Her taller sister was heaving lustily and the combination of her problem, coupled with the gruesome tableau in front of her was too much for the smaller one to bear. Her beautiful blue eyes rolled up like those in a china doll and her legs gave way.

I started for her but before I could reach her side, Leonard appeared out of nowhere, shouldered me aside and caught her just as she touched the floor. Her sister's boy friend had his hands full and Leonard assured him that he would take the poor thing into his office until she recovered.

I have only hearsay evidence and the spotty reputation of Leonard Sutton to support my speculation as to what happened in the office. Leonard, I am sure had chosen this blue-eyed, flaxen haired beauty to be his Lady Godiva. Even now, I can imagine him praising her face and form and telling her that she would be immortalized in wax sitting astride a magnificent white horse for all the world to see. I am sure he got her out of her stylish blue suit, for during the following episode, I saw her naked.

It was only three days after Labor Day, and Minnie Mae had not yet left for the Catskills. Instead, while strolling the boardwalk, she witnessed a tall young woman in a blue suit throwing up in front of the Eden Musee.

"Whatsamatter, dearie -- too much for'ya in there?" she inquired.

"I'll be okay ma'am, but my sister is still in there. I think she's fainted." Neither Minnie Mae nor Lizzie Borden had been born yesterday, and grasping her umbrella as though it were a hatchet, she marched inside and burst into Leonard's office.

"Jeez-um Minnie -- I can explain!! Ow! Jeez-um!"

It was pitiful to hear, but mixed with my pity I admit to an element of vicarious satisfaction and revenge. I pictured Minnie Mae, axe in hand, in her best Lizzie Borden style giving Leonard forty one whacks after giving the future Lady Godiva forty. But her only weapon was her umbrella, and when the door burst open again it was obvious she had confined her whacking to Leonard. The young lady, wild eyed and fully recovered, emerged in panic carrying her stylish blue suit and underclothing. She looked desperately for a place to hide and darted into the Jack the Ripper exhibit. Before she reached it, two petite blue shoes arced after her fleeing form from the direction of Leonard's office.

Felix and I had been busy mopping the extravagant remains her sister had left, and it was evident that Minnie Mae had not yet finished with Leonard. Blows could still be heard from his office, along with his pitiful cries of, "Jeez-um --- easy Minnie Mae --- Jeezum!!" and "I'll show ya -- ya bastard ya!!"

"Let's get her in the ladies powder room, "I shouted to Felix. I rushed forward, picking up her shoes on the way and found her trying to get into her bra under one of the Shah's elephants. We shielded her as best we could, and what I was able to see proved to me that Leonard had used a sharp eye in casting her as Lady Godiva. We got her into the ladies room and told her to get dressed as quickly as she could. Felix hurriedly locked the door with his master key.

She finished dressing about the time Leonard had taken his forty-first whack. Mrs. Sutton emerged from the office with her bent umbrella a bare second after we let the young lady out of the powder room. Minnie Mae had gotten it out of her system by then and she probably didn't recognize the young lady with her clothes on. Poor Leonard had received his forty one whacks plus a few for good measure and he was a sight to behold; indeed, he looked like Mr. Borden must have looked on that fateful day.

There was a sense of closure in the old Eden Musee, as though there had been a death in the family. All of us knew the lazy, hazy, crazy days of that particular summer were over and perhaps it was time to look for work elsewhere. Leonard's peculiar talent for the darker side of man was unique, and had he stuck to murder and mayhem, the Eden Musee might still exist. But, a slip of a girl in a blue tailored suit walked in and his world and ours was torn to shreds.

But, as Felix and I later agreed, nine out of ten ain't bad.

©Harry Buschman 1998

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