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For half a century, visitors to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf have come face to face with presidents, popes and other famous people. All those people were made of wax. NBC Bay Area's Joe Rosato Jr. shows how a beloved tourist destination is closing up shop.
Marilyn Monroe stretched out her arms lustily. Donald Trump’s comb-over was perfectly coifed. President Obama looked stately and Charlie Chaplin seemed befuddled.
Rodney Fong strolled deliberately past the famous crowd, making a beeline to a bustily accurate Elvira wax figure.
“I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who’s grown up in a wax museum,” Fong said of himself as he strolled past Elvira into the House of Horrors.
The 350 strange wax figures of movie stars, political leaders and random celebrities are part of Fong’s birthright; his grandfather Thomas Fong founded the San Francisco Wax Museum in a warehouse on Fisherman’s Wharf in 1963. Fong’s father ran it, and eventually the baton got passed to Rodney.
Fong used to play in the museum as a child, eventually learning to create wax figures before moving on to operations.
His mother did the hair for every wax figure in the place. Of course, it all made for odd introductions.
“Good and bad for first dates,” said Fong. “Bringing someone to your work in the wax museum.”
This year marked the museum’s 50th anniversary. And it’s last.
On Thursday, Fong and his family are shutting the doors for good and stepping away from the business. Fong, who serves as president of San Francisco’s Planning Commission said it’s just time to do something else.
“It’s been part of our family, part of Fisherman’s Wharf, part of San Francisco and we’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” Fong said. The closure doesn’t mean the end to kitschy wax figures on Fisherman’s Wharf. Madame Tussauds Wax Museum chain will take over the building, performing a $35 million dollar renovation and adding a dungeon.
The new museum is set to open in nine months.
The workshop where artists once crafted wax Mel Gibson or Michael Jackson, was now filled with giant rolls of bubble wrap in anticipation of the closure. Crews will wrap up all 350 figures and props for the big move.
Fong said he is working with a potential buyer to sell all the figures together. “In a very strange way we’re a family business, but all the 350 wax figures are part of our family,” said Fong. “Who knows what happens here at night. Maybe they end up talking and dancing, so we want to keep the wax family together.”
On Wednesday, former employee David Finnerty came by for a last look around. He remembered working for Fong’s grandfather, and the eerily quiet mornings when Finnerty would walk around cleaning.
“When you went through in the morning with no lights or anything,” said Finnerty said of the figures, “it went in the back of your mind, are they going to move?”
Fong estimated 12 million visitors have been through the museum since it first opened. But rather than wax poetic about the past, he was hopeful for its future under new operators. As he watched a group of visitors gaping at a creepy Frankenstein, he pondered the role the museum has played in the lives of countless tourists.
“To be scared a little bit, to be entertained to be shocked,” Fong mused, “to take them out of their own space for 45 minutes or an hour is something we all need.”