By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Sean Kelley
The Laclede's Landing Wax Museum is home to 166 figures, complete with ghostly visages of Hitler and Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt and, of course, Charles and Diana. They peer out from dimly lit nooks tucked within the 160-year-old, five-story building.
Charlie Ashline, a.k.a. "Doctor Wax," acts as curator, a job that requires plenty of dusting and sometimes nursing the lifeless back to life. "They need constant attention," ruminates the doctor. "I'll fix their fingers when they fall off. I mend their broken legs." Not long ago, Ashline fit one of them with an artificial hip. Passing General Douglas MacArthur, he shouts, "You fix that shirt, boy! I've been telling him to fix it for a week."
Ashline has run the Landing's waxworks for a quarter-century and says the riverfront location isn't bad for business, particularly during summer months when perspiring tourists are wont to plunk down four dollars for a cool stroll through history.
N. First St. & Lucas Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63102
Category: Attractions and Amusement Parks
Region: St. Louis - Riverfront
Besides the wax museum, though, Landing visitors are offered few other seductions. There's Gibbol's Costumes and Novelties to peruse, especially for wannabe clowns in need of a trick red nose. And there's the Dental Health Theatre where "Dudley Goes to the Dentist" is shown in a continual loop. After that, well, erstwhile sightseers can browse Doctor John's for dildos or nipple clamps or, as a last resort, bring home a Cardinals pennant from St. Louis Souvenirs.
That's about it. Laclede's Landing is a tourist trap without many trappings.
It wasn't always this way. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the historic nine-block sector due north of the Arch led the charge of downtown redevelopment. While the rest of the city languished, the Landing stood as the vanguard for a new St. Louis. Back then, one could expect a two-hour wait for a meal at the Old Spaghetti Factory -- and most of the customers were locals. After hours, one big party ensued. Nightclubs presented original music and hotspots like Boomer's, Muddy Waters, Kennedy's and Mississippi Nights created a wall-to-wall rock scene.
Wilco seemed to distill the Landing's essence in their 2002 song "Heavy Metal Drummer": "I sincerely miss those heavy-metal bands I used to go see on the Landing in the summer," sang Jeff Tweedy. "Shiny, shiny pants and bleach-blond hair, a double kick drum by the river in the summer."
But like hair metal, the Landing's moment passed. Retailers are largely gone, and just a handful of restaurants remain to feed the area's 1,500 office workers. When the five o'clock whistle blows, it's a party crowd that dominates, downing shots of Red-Headed Slut and Liquid Cocaine at the Big Bang before heading to the Study Hall to be served by waitresses dressed as schoolgirls.
"Laclede's Landing was largely passed over by the early wave of revitalization now so apparent in other parts of downtown," explains Rollin Stanley, executive director of the City of St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency.
Part of the blame, adds Stanley, must be aimed at the corporation that oversees the Landing. "[The Laclede's Landing Redevelopment Corporation] guessed wrong about dotcoms, wrong about gaming, wrong about what people wanted for entertainment and wrong about downtown's general direction."
Now, with Pinnacle Entertainment's $400 million casino and entertainment development rising to its north, and Washington Avenue bursting with residential projects, the Landing is staring at the face of obsolescence. And the LLRC finds itself playing catch-up.
"They [the LLRC] were not trying to make the Landing people-friendly," says Nan Tolen, who for 25 years owned a now-defunct convenience shop on the Landing called Nan's This 'n That. "They wanted it to be known as the boozer place for the kids."
Like Laclede's Landing, Charlie Ashline hasn't kept up with the times. In fact, the museum hasn't yet introduced a Bill Clinton figure, let alone a soulless statue of George W. Bush. Here, the timeline stops at 1989, when Bush the elder was president.
"People look at the Landing and think, 'Why the hell would I drive down there?'" says Rich Frame, co-owner of Mississippi Nights since 1979. 'I'm going to get gigged on parking, drinks are going to cost more, and I've gotta pay to get in.' It doesn't add up. Then they look at this shit about the Bottle District and Ballpark Village. Throw the casino in and I go, 'Oh boy.'"
The late Jimmy Massucci, owner of the shuttered Café Louie on Third Street, is the man widely credited for giving a name to the area in the mid-1960s -- some 200 years after city founder Pierre Liguest Laclede, along with August Chouteau, designed a nineteen-block grid along the Mississippi.
When the ambitious Frenchman first set eyes on what today is Laclede's Landing, it was a frontier hamlet of fewer than 100 villagers, trading furs predominantly and living in primitive cabins. Over the course of the next century, buildings rose, streets were gas-illuminated, and in came a steady flow of livestock and millions of tons of goods. River men worked the boats, shifting product to and from the foundries and mills, manufacturing licorice and roasting coffee.