At night, after the doors are locked and the staff is gone, all of the wax figures in the Great River Road Museum come to life.
That’s the story Jimmy Blanchard tells, anyway, and he says it with a glint in his eye. He’s the museum’s curator, the person who spent 12 years researching and gathering artifacts to tell the story about Louisiana life along the Mississippi River.
Among the items installed to tell the story are a collection of wax figures that once populated the Musee Conti Wax Museum in New Orleans.
The careful placement of these figures is just one of the things that makes this museum different from others. Their lifelike presence was created by artists of Madame Tussauds Wax Museums, now known as Madame Tussauds Attractions.
So, it’s not so far fetched to imagine these figures coming to life in a “Night at the Museum” scenario, especially when standing alone among them. Louisiana’s governors Huey P. Long and Edwin W. Edwards look as if they’ll start talking any moment at either end of a craps table.
And the very Louisianan who introduced the game to the United States, Bernard de Marigny, plays a round with Louisiana Gov. William C.C. Claiborne at a nearby table.
The gambling governors stand at midpoint in the museum’s story, which begins at the entrance with the Battle of New Orleans. British soldiers aim a cannon on one side at the newly minted Americans of the Louisiana territory, who ready their own cannon on the other.
Lots of visitors are expected to walk through the middle of this skirmish on Sunday, Nov. 12, when the museum celebrates its grand opening with its own “Night at the Museum” celebration. It’s a delayed grand opening that’s been pushed back by a couple of years because of COVID-19.
That’s not saying the museum’s doors haven’t been open. They have.
The Great River Road Museum, along with its inhouse Dixie Cafe, opened at 40100 La. 942, Darrow, after the state lifted its pandemic lockdown in June 2020. It stands next to Houmas House & Gardens, whose owner, Kevin Kelly, donated the land for the venture.
Kelly doesn’t own nor run the museum. He helped establish a nonprofit foundation, which governs the establishment. Still, he and Blanchard, who also is Houmas House’s curator, worked together to make the museum a reality through landing several federal grants for its construction and operation.
Now they, along with the foundation, are finally celebrating their dream come true with a proper opening from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday with cocktails, a buffet and hors d’oeurves with entertainment by the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra.
That’s not forgetting additional entertainment on the museum’s pipe organ that once provided music for the vaudeville house where legendary New Orleans jazzman Louis Armstrong once played in his younger days. No “Night at the Museum” would be complete without that.
Besides, the pipe organ is just as much a part of the Great River Road’s story as the houses that stand and once stood along both sides of the river.
Which is the museum’s mission — to tell the story of both sides of the Lower Mississippi River. It’s here where visitors will learn about the people, places, culture and history through authentic artifacts and thoroughly researched panels while mingling with historical figures.
“You can tour the east side of the river on the right side of the museum and the west side on the left,” Blanchard said.
So, the tour begins, winding through the river’s bends past places that still stand and those that don’t. Then there are the personalities whose stories fill in the gaps of the ever expanding puzzle that is Louisiana’s Great River Road.
Along the way, Blanchard points out such artifacts as an original letter signed by legendary lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster for a land grant case he defended along the River Road.
Next up are a table and chairs that once furnished one of the lavish parlors in the 19th century steamboat J.M. White.
“We have a photo of the parlor,” Blanchard said. “If you look here, you can see this table and chairs in the photo. And if you look at the tops of the chairs, you’ll see the J.M. White emblem.”
Keep walking, and you’ll pass the original Mr. Bingle marionette operated by New York puppeteer Edwin “Oscar” Isentrout in Maison Blanche’s display window along New Orleans’ Canal Street. Isentrout also was the voice for the department store’s Christmas mascot.
“There’s really so much here that it’s almost impossible to take it all in,” Blanchard said. “Some people come back for second visits to see what they missed.”
The Great River Road Museum, 40100 La. 942, Darrow, next door to Houmas House & Gardens, will host a belated grand opening celebration on …
Even then, it’s difficult to absorb this story, which includes a piano known as The Crown Jewel Steinway & Sons Kewazinga Bubinga, where Monroe visitor Jan Nelson now sits at the keyboard.
The piano was specially made of baobab wood from Africa for a Texas resident. It eventually landed in a Louisiana auction house.
“Baobab is the oldest wood in the world, and this is the only Steinway made of it,” Blanchard said.
Nelson, meanwhile, reveals that she is a former piano teacher. Blanchard encourages her to play, and she does, filling the museum’s combination church-opera hall section with classical sounds that morph into the stylings of Elton John.
A few steps from the piano is a dining table that awaits an eventual Louisiana food exhibit designed by chef John Folse, and when Nelson finishes her piano medley, Blanchard turns to the pipe organ.
A church purchased it when the vaudeville house closed, and the museum eventually bought it, along with its accompanying pipes, from the church. The museum also bought the church’s pews, which serve as an audience area for an empty stage where wax figures watch from an opera box.
The instrument has since been transformed into a player organ, and with a flip of the switch, music fit for any Phantom of the Opera fills the room.
If there’s any doubt, just ask the Phantom, himself — author Gaston Leroux’s antihero stands next to the organ’s pipes at stage right. Of course, he’s a Paris figure, not a Louisianan, but his former residency in the Musee Conti Wax Museum has earned his place here.
It’s also in this section where visitors turn to the west side of the river, which explores the cotton, sugarcane and perique tobacco industries, along with the Civil War era.
To its credit, the museum doesn’t shy away from the Great River Road’s uglier history of slavery, slave auctions, Ku Klux Klansmen and both White and Black plantation and slave owners.
“If we’re going to tell the story, we need to tell the whole story,” Blanchard said. “Some people might not like these things, but they happened.”
Mixed in along the way are artifacts and photos from the former B. Lemann & Bro. Store in Donaldsonville and 19th century burial traditions.
“This is here where the term ‘basket case’ comes from,” Blanchard said, pointing to an 19th century basket casket flanked by a praying nun. Also in this section are a prie dieu and crucifix that once belonged to Father Francis Xavier Seelos who pastored St. Mary of the Assumption Church in New Orleans.
He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 9, 2000.
Now, when walking back to the entrance, be sure to look for the Lincoln Life Mask, made from a mold of the president’s face while he was still alive, and Napoleon’s death mask in a glass case next to the entryway.
The mask isn’t on loan from the Louisiana State Museum’s Cabildo — this one belongs to the Great River Road Museum. So, the state is home to two authentic likenesses of the French Emperor who sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States.
Before leaving, be sure to visit John James Audubon in the gallery behind and gaze down into the vestibule alongside Mark Twain from the second story steamboat pilot house. Both are located on the opposite side of the lobby area from the main museum.
Twain appears ready to share his thoughts with you. Will he?
You’ll have to wait for nightfall to find out. Wink-wink.
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