The Last Waltz At The Musée Conti Wax Museum

Jan 22, 2016

For the past 50 years, there has been one place you could see, without fail, James Audubon, Marie Laveau, Huey P. Long and Dracula, together in one room.

But time is running out to mingle with Louisiana’s most notable historical figures. The Musée Conti Wax Museum is closing up shop at the end of the month.

Peg Culligan leads a group of people through the long, dark, dungeon-like halls of the wax museum, giving histories of the life-sized dioramas, set side-by-side, showcasing the highs and the lows of New Orleans history and culture.

“Over here we see a lynching,” she says to the group. “A lynching is an illegal hanging, meaning people were hung for something they weren’t tried for. There was a police chief in New Orleans named Hennessy. He was killed -- nobody knows who did it.”

A wax sculpture of John James Audubon at the Musee Conti Wax Museum.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO

Culligan rattles off these moments in the city’s history as she and the group pass by backlit wax figures in costume, placed within staged sets. It feels like a mashup between The Mortuary Haunted House on Canal Street, and the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Transitioning from the bright lobby into the dark, narrow loop of exhibits, the route follows a mainly chronological journey through the city’s life since its founding in 1718 -- with some random characters thrown in, for good wax museum measure... like the Cyclops.

“Now the Cyclops, of course, is from Greek mythology, it has nothing to do with our history,” Culligan says as a disclaimer to her listeners. “We just had a spare place, so we wanted to put something silly there, so we put the Cyclops.”

She balances the silly with sprinkled-in mentions of current events.

“We’ve been hearing all about the monuments right?” she says to a local group. “Here’s one of the guys they wanna dethrone, General Beauregard. He’s sitting on a horse right in front of City Park.”

The museum was the brainchild of New Orleans author John Churchill Chase. A cartoonist, artist and historian, Chase is best known for his 1949 book Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children and Other Streets of New Orleans. He went to a wax museum while on a trip to Europe, and thought it would be fun to tell his city’s history in wax.  

Museum tour guide Peg Culligan with a wax figure of former Louisiana governor Huey P. Long.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO

Chase convinced some rich friends to back his creative venture, which wasn’t as hard as it might sound today.

Madame Toussaud’s in London wasn’t the first wax museum when it opened in 1836, but it did popularize the medium commercially. By the beginning of the 20th century, almost every major city had a wax museum. They were quite the attraction by the time Chase visited one, who, like many at the time, viewed wax works as a serious art form.

Peg Culligan is 67 years old. She was born in New Orleans, graduated from the University of New Orleans, and has lived in the French Quarter for 40 years. She’s a licensed tour guide, and has worked at the wax museum for four years. You can tell she loves her job. But soon, her career as guide will have to continue outside the museum walls.

“The building’s been bought and the owners are well up in years," she says. "And they just wanna stop the burden at this time. People have been after them for years to get the building, and it’s gonna be turned into condominiums.”

David Peranio was manning the front desk. He hopes the big happy wax family can stay together.

“We don’t really wanna separate all of the pieces, but if we can donate them to different museums it would be amazing if someone would just buy the whole collection and move it.”

A rendering of one of Weber Companies' condo units.
Credit Weber Companies

But there’s no deal on the table that he knows of. Weber Companies, the real estate developers who bought the building, say there is a plan to place the figures in a new venue with "21st Century technology."

Construction on the condos is slated to begin February 1. A poster sits on an easel in the lobby displaying what the condos will look like. There will be 16 units, ranging from the mid-$500,000s to $2 million .  

Meanwhile, the museum’s been jam-packed, with more locals than tourists. People like Kathleen Kilgen, who is at the museum because it’s closing.

“We’d never been here” Kilgen says. “It makes you wonder what’s gonna happen to all these figures and the costumes and stuff. Who knows the fate of the figures?"

It seems that is a shared concern among employees and visitors alike. Especially when you have a favorite scene, like Peranio.

“Probably the coolest one to me is the boxing set with Jim, the first match with gloves. Yeah, that’s probably my favorite.”

The next chapter for the boxers au wax is unknown, but for another week, you can still catch them, gloves on, in the ring.

The Musée Conti Wax Museum is located at 917 Conti Street and is open until January 31.