Photographs by Special to the Democrat-Gazette/ MARCIA SCHNEDLER
An image of the proprietor greets visitors entering Maxwell Blade’s Odditorium and Curiosities Museum in Hot Springs.
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
HOT SPRINGS -- The Spa City is a hotbed of old-fashioned and offbeat attractions, as befits a longtime tourist town whose heyday came during the first half of the previous century.
Among Hot Springs' eclectic allures are an alligator farm, an observation tower, a wax museum, a shrine of Star Wars memorabilia, a gangster museum, amphibious Duck rides and a half-dozen miniature golf courses.
Believe it or not, there's no Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum in this cockamamie mix (the closest one is in Branson). But there is a Hot Springs equivalent, displaying a collection of bizarre and mysterious objects evoking the Gilded Age showman P.T. Barnum.
Having reopened earlier this year at its new location inside the former Malco Theater building on Central Avenue, Maxwell Blade's Odditorium and Curiosities Museum touts an "incredible collection of over 300 rare and unusual objects from around the world."
A reviewer on the popular Trip Advisor site offers a whimsical perspective, calling the Odditorium "a really neat collection of mostly random stuff -- like visiting the attic of your weird uncle who worked in the circus."
Blade has collected the objects over the years, with some artifacts on loan from Davis Tillman, who operated a Hot Springs antiques business until retiring in 2016. A number are macabre or ghoulish, while others fascinate by reflecting popular topics and tastes of times past.
Among the array of oddities and curiosities filling the three galleries:
• A model of a frigate sailing ship constructed in 1813 by French prisoners of war in England. An information panel asserts that "the darker strands of rope are human hair."
• An Incan silver skull said to have been found by Hiram Bingham in 1913 while exploring the lost city of Machu Picchu. Weighing 4.37 pounds, "it is believed to have been molded from the skull of one of three high priestesses."
• A photograph taken in 1911 of 23-year-old Melba Phillips, an Australian advertised as "the smallest entertainer the world has ever known." As an adult, "she stood 23 inches tall and weighed 20 pounds. She sang, danced, recited poetry and recited short dramatic scenes from Shakespeare."
• A shrunken head from the Ecuadorian Amazon. A Jivaro Indian "was careful in the preparation of the 'Tasntsa' shrunken head. Utmost care was given in order to maintain the original likeness of the human face."
• A two-headed turtle named Tom-Tom that was given as a 10th birthday gift some years ago to identical twin boys in Texarkana, Ark.
• A white deer, a white squirrel and albino examples of several other species preserved via taxidermy.
This potpourri of the peculiar extends to such diverse items as a child-size 19th-century coffin, a pair of Harry Houdini's handcuffs, a mummified cat named Felix, an electric chair, antique medical instruments and a model of a mortuary's drive-thru viewing window.
Half-price Odditorium admission is available to patrons who've bought tickets to illusionist and comedian Blade's Theater of Magic show, on a stage in the Malco Theater building.
A Fort Smith native, Blade has been performing in Hot Springs since 1996. Of the more than 500 reviews posted on Trip Advisor, 81 percent rate his show as excellent, 14 percent as very good, 5 percent as average or worse.
Typical of the on-site comments is this from a Louisiana visitor: "This was our first magic/illusion show and we loved it! My 6-year-old was amazed and sat and watched the entire show. Maxwell Blade is entertaining and engaging, well worth the $$$ for good family entertainment."
Maxwell Blade's Odditorium and Curiosities Museum, 817 Central Ave., Hot Springs, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, as well as weekend days when the Theater of Magic is staging a performance. Museum admission is $10 ($5 if purchased along with a show ticket -- $24.50, $22.50 for those over 55, $20.50 for those 12 and younger).
For details including dates of forthcoming magic shows, visit maxwellblade.com or call (501) 623-6200.
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