VINTAGE ST. PETE is a series focused on our city’s illustrious (and occasionally notorious) past. Many of these features have appeared in the Catalyst over the past two years, and new stories will be added as time goes on. This one was originally published in August 2019.
When Rob Stambaugh was a boy, his job was to sweep up the family business every night, once the last customer had departed and the buzzing, backlit sign out front was turned off.
In the early 1960s, Stambaugh’s father Ted was the general manager of the London Wax Museum, one of the first tourist attractions on St. Petersburg Beach. So young Rob and his four siblings took turns, driving a pushbroom along the museum’s cold terrazzo corridors, and trying not to look at the lifelike figures staring glassy-eyed out at him from their windowbox displays.
“When you’re in there, you just don’t even want to pay attention to these things,” Stambaugh, 70, remembers. “You’re just keeping your head down, going back and forth.
“But my dad was a practical joker. He’d sneak into one of the scenes. And he had that ability to know the opportune time to reach out and grab you … and oh, my God.”
A realtor by trade, Ted Stambaugh had been a member of the St. Pete Beach City Commission, and had even served a term as mayor. He was the first president of the St. Pete Beach Chamber of Commerce. He wasn’t a native, but had lived in the city since the age of 5, and had seen it grow from a scrappy community of bait shops and seafood shacks along Gulf Boulevard to a home for mom and pop motels, upscale hotels … and tourists.
The London Wax Museum – “From Josephine TUSSAUD in England” trumpeted the unmissable sign, a replica of London’s famous Big Ben – opened at 5500 Gulf Blvd. on the second day of March, 1963. Ted Stambaugh was right there greeting his guests, and he was still there, still playing pranks on his kids and his grandkids, until the museum breathed its last, 25 years later.
Josephine Tussaud’s great-grandmother was Marie “Madame” Tussaud, the French artist who established a traveling collection of waxworks in England in the early 19th century. The name Tussaud became synonymous with lifelike wax figures, and Marie’s descendants carried the craft into the modern age, expanding as an across-the-pond franchise to Canada and, inevitably, the United States.
Stambaugh the realtor brokered the property deal (approximately one acre between the main drag and Boca Ciega Bay) for Canadian entrepreneur T. Alec Rigby, who owned franchise rights to both the Tussaud museums and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, the nationwide string of “odditoriums” that put the weird and the freakish on display. A veritable 20th century P.T. Barnum, Rigby recognized Stambaugh as an invaluable asset, because of his connections to local politics and community concerns, and a fellow traveler with a similarly innate feel for generating publicity.
Opening day for the 8,000-square-foot attraction was big news. Visitors walked past carefully staged tableaus with waxworks – there were 88 of them at first, at a reported cost of $1,000 each – of historical figures, characters from literature and a dimly-lit “Chamber of Horrors,” with gruesome scenes of torture and execution (including an “electric chair” that buzzed, sizzled and lit up blood red when a switch was tripped). The claustrophobic room also included less nightmarish figures of movie creeps like the Wolfman, Jekyll and Hyde and the Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein’s Monster.
Predictably, the Chamber of Horrors was Ted Stambaugh’s favorite place to play sneak-attack pranks on his children.
John F. Kennedy and his First Lady, Jackie, occupied a prime spot near the entrance, in a White House tableau with another hero of the time, astronaut John Glenn.
(At a VIP preview the day before opening, someone observed that Mrs. Kennedy’s hair was “all wrong,” and in fact resembled that of Albert Einstein. A hairdresser arrived in the evening to re-style Waxy Jackie’s ‘do into an appropriate bouffant).
After JFK’s murder later that year, new president Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird were added. A Kennedy “memorial” scene was hastily created. And in 1964, the Tussaud Company sent over a “new,” particularly bizarre historical tableau – the murder of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, with a horrified policeman watching. This was not Tussaud’s finest hour: Oswald, a critic wrote years later, looked as if he were about to break into a song-and-dance routine.
Along with his practical-joker side, Rob Stambaugh recalls, “My dad was kind of a carny guy. He would do all these crazy things to get advertising. When the Beatles were hot, he bought four airline tickets for the wax figures and flew them from New York to Tampa. Then he rented a convertible and drove them around town – the St. Pete Times called him and said ‘Ted, are you at it again? Everybody in town is all excited because they think they spotted the Beatles riding around town in a convertible.’”
To stave off of the brutal Florida sun, Ted kept the air conditioner at full blast as he drove the faux Fab Four through the St. Pete streets. “He moved fast and said a few prayers,” remembers his son.
Visitors ogled W.C. Fields and Jean Harlow, Walt Disney, Shakespeare and Mark Twain, Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Henry VIII, a barroom full of lusty pirates and their wenches, Julius Caesar watching a bare-breasted Cleopatra taking a bubble bath (“We were always hoping the bubbles would recede,” Rob laughs), the assembled Allied and Axis leaders from World War II and the somber deathbed of Abraham Lincoln, with the president’s chest almost imperceptibly moving up and down as he drew his final breaths.
One of slow-moving St. Petersburg’s most popular attractions, “the wax museum made a lot of money in the day,” Rob adds. “Especially on rainy days, the hotels would be full and we’d do real well. Maybe 1,000 people a day.” At its peak, there were about 125 figures on display.
The exact timing is a little murky, but at some point the St. Petersburg museum – most likely when Rigby assumed full ownership of the Ripley’s organization in 1969 – dropped Josephine Tussaud as a namesake, and became, officially, Louis Tussaud’s London Wax Museum. Louis, who’d died in 1938, was another great-grandchild who’d trained as a sculptor with the Madame Tussaud organization in Great Britain.
Although he kept the London Wax Museum, Ted Stambaugh became a Ripley’s executive, traveling the world to make deals and obtain new exhibits on behalf of thrill-seeking T. Alec Rigby.
Son Rob, meanwhile, earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Florida State University. When Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, he was running the Polynesian Resort’s food and beverage division.
The arrival of Disney signaled the beginning of the end for Florida’s “roadside” attractions; how could waxy-faced statues of long-dead historical figures compete with animatronics and thrill rides?
In 1978, Rigby gave Ted Stambaugh, his old friend and valued associate, a “sweetheart deal” on the Gulf Boulevard acreage. If the writing, however, wasn’t yet on the wall – the nearby Aquatarium marine park had recently closed for lack of business – it was becoming clear that tourism was changing at a radical clip. The world was becoming smaller. Rigby was getting out while the getting was good.
Stambaugh, however, was determined to keep his beloved wax museum in operation. He convinced his son to leave Disney and take over management of a derelict restaurant adjacent to the museum. Rob Stambaugh took up the gauntlet and renovated the vacant steakhouse, giving his new place an “Old Florida” theme and naming it after the late Silas Dent, a local legend who’d lived alone on Cabbage Key, near Tierra Verde. Silas Dent, a large man with a long white beard, use to play Santa Claus for the Stambaugh kids – he’d come in across the bay in a rowboat – at City Hall Christmas parties.
In the 1980s, the three-story Silas Dent’s was a massive success. Attendance at the wax museum, meanwhile, was falling perilously low.
“If a person’s going to come down to Florida, he’s going to go to Mouse Country,” Ted Stambaugh groused to the local paper in 1985, further explaining that the London Wax Museum was changing with the times by adding figures of current celebrities like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Rambo, expanding the gift shop and adding a one-hour photo counter.
To make room, some of the less-recognizable wax figures were re-dressed and “repurposed.” Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby and the horrified police officer, for example, would up in three different Chamber of Horror tableaus.
The end came in 1989. Stambaugh reluctantly closed the wax museum, razed it to the ground, and built a shopping center on the remainder of the property. He died in 1993.
“My dad was my best friend,” says Rob. ‘I wish I had so much of the ability that he had. His vision was just tremendous. He would talk about something, I’d be thinking ‘What in the world is he talking about?’ and son of a gun if it didn’t turn out to be true.”
Silas Dent’s was gutted by fire in 1996; rather than re-build, Stambaugh sold it and opened a smaller, more compact version at the rear of the property. He sold that place – called Silas’ Steakhouse – to Caddy’s in 2018.
Today, he and his wife Debbie operate Bayside Banquets, a catering and event company. They lease space on the land that used to belong to the Stambaugh family.
All the wax figures were sold off to other attractions years ago, although Stan Musial’s widow bought the wax effigy of the baseball great. Today, the site of the London Wax Museum is an asphalt parking lot next to a T-shirt shop.
But Ron Stambaugh has a thousand priceless memories. Along with boxes of old photos, plastic souvenirs and tourist brochures.
“Some of it, I had put in Silas,” he remembers. “It was kind of like a museum with all the stuff I had in there. A slingshot with the wax museum stamp on it!
“I’ve got a four-car garage that you can’t put a car in. Full of stuff. Little by little, I’m re-taking my garage now that I’m semi-retired.”