A Trip to the Eden Musée

A few words today about a place that was a New York amusement institution for nearly a half century, and whose “story” overlaps somewhat with that of vaudeville: The Eden Musée,

Located on 55 West 23rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, in the fashionable district near Madison Square, the Eden Musee opened for business on March 28, 1884. The time and the place are significant. Tony Pastor had only opened his new “clean vaudeville” establishment at Tammany Hall on Union Square three years earlier. Koster and Bial’s was around the corner. The Musee, which was huge, opulent and respectable, was consciously built far from the traditional, if more plebian, entertainment district the Bowery, and placed near Ladies Mile, where middle and upper class ladies shopped. It was likewise given a fashionable-sounding French name consonant with all the other French loanwords only then coming into vogue in the English-speaking world for leisure institutions, such as theatre, restaurant, ballet, vaudeville, burlesque, boutique, salon, and about a zillion more. For a time, other cities, such as Chicago and Boston, each had their own Eden Musée.

Like London’s Madame Tussaud’s and the Musée Grévin in Paris (founded two years earlier), the core attraction of the Eden Musée was its galleries of wax figures. For a frame of reference I often refer people to the classic horror film House of Wax, although the fictional institution depicted in that movie isn’t an exact equivalent. The Chamber of Horrors was its most renowned exhibition, but also popular in its day were The Sacred Chamber (with scenes depicting the life of Jesus), “America Enlightening the World” (an exhibition of patriotic scenes from American history), and displays on The Rulers of the World, and “People Talked About” (living famous people). One of the sculptors imported from Italy to help design the scores of wax figures in the museum was Sylvester Poli, who went on to start his own vaudeville circuit.

What’s vaudeville got to do with wax, you may wonder? Well, the Eden Musee also featured a Concert Hall, where performances were given constantly. There was an in-house orchestra, and the stage also hosted acrobats, folks bands, dancers, magicians, and Ajeeb, an automaton that played chess and checkers. Here’s a bill advertising the famous medium Dunninger:

Oh and something else: n 1897, the Eden Musee became the first venue to regularly show Edison’s films!

In short order, however, movies were also being shown in storefront nickelodeons all over the city, as well as arcades in amusement parks like the ones at Coney Island. And popular (and affordable) vaudeville was springing up all over the place as well. Not to mention the Bowery’s cheap dime museums, which cost 1/5 the ticket price of the Eden for admittance. For well-heeled people, there was opera and musical theatre. Competition on all sides, undersold by some, outclassed by others!

By 1915, the Eden Musee was bankrupt. Samuel Gumpertz acquired its most choice collections and installed them next door to the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in Coney Island, where it continued to amuse and divert audiences until destroyed by fire in 1928.

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For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; for more on early cinema history please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube