Saturday, July 21st, 2012

image of automated musical instrumentsI’ve been to House On The Rock once before we went on our family outing last week with Sean. Many, many moons ago, when I was just a dorky beanpole teenager instead of a dorky beanpole middle-aged guy, my mom and dad stopped there during a family vacation, probably a weekend camping trip, but to be perfectly honest I don’t remember much about it except a calliope that caught my interest and a room chock full of musical instruments that played themselves.

Comes to that, the self-playing musical instruments were just about the single most impressive thing about the House On The Rock that stuck in my memory all these years. I’m a gadget geek by nature, so that stuff was the cat’s ass from the moment I first laid eyes on it, and I was wowed all over again when I saw them this time around. I forgot exactly how many rooms were filled with stringed instruments or brass or woodwinds, each instrument festooned with pneumatically-activated fingers that jumped as they plied the keys. As it turns out, there are dozens of such rooms, each with a different theme: In one room, the violas, cellos and violins rest on the plush cushions of gilded chairs and play waltzes, while in another garishly-painted room, brass instruments blare out marches.

I’m not the only one to get a serious geek-on over this. The band 10,000 Maniacs recorded a music video for their song More Than This at House On The Rock against the backdrop of a room filled with automated strings and horns. The band members wear puppet strings and prosthetics, and turn their heads robotically to suggest that they’re automatons. Very nerdy stuff.

Because I’m such a geek about it, I wanted to find out more about how the automated instruments worked, so I asked The Mighty Google to tell me more and was crushed when I learned from Wikipedia that a lot of the instruments don’t really play themselves. Wait, what? According to a book by Doug Moe, a journalist who writes for Madison news media, a lot of the instruments only jerk back and forth while the sound comes from organ pipes. I have never been more disappointed. Seriously. The combined disillusionment I felt when I learned that the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, Santa Claus and Batman were all just figments of the imagination did not let me down more than this.

image of doll house at House On The RockAs long as I’m sinking into the depths of disillusionment, here’s another thing I didn’t remember very clearly about The House On The Rock: In my dim memory, it was a place filled with a vast, wonderful collection of various and sundry trinkets and mementos gathered from around the world and assembled into an almost Smithsonian display of Americana.

It’s vast. I recalled that correctly. And there is some eye-popping stuff, but I wouldn’t call it exactly Smithsonian. I don’t think the Smithsonian would display a fiberglass whale that’s twice as big as any living whale and has shark’s teeth as big as tombstones. And I think the Smithsonian has doll houses, but not like House On The Rock. House On The Rock has doll houses like a mutt has fleas. They’ve hoarded what has got to be the largest number of dolls and doll houses amassed anywhere in the nation. If the powers that be added one more doll house to the massivity of their hoard, I’m pretty sure it would collapse into a black hole, it’s that impressively large. I wouldn’t call it a collection, though. A collection would be a thoughtful representation of doll houses displayed in a way that you could make sense out of. Their doll houses are piled up almost on top of one another in great big heaps, like old newspapers in a garage. Might be fun to look at a couple, but open up every one to see what’s in it? Nah.

Just one other thing I didn’t recall correctly, and then I’m done: I think the displayed mountains of stuff were meant to evoke a kind of wonder at how much there was, or how wildly crazy it was, or something big and fun, but it wasn’t what I would call wonderful, exactly. Maybe calling it a walk through someone’s nightmarish fever dream is too harsh, but it came awfully close to that. Almost every room was so badly lit that I staggered in and out of darkness, bumping into blind corners, and what lights there were seemed to highlight each display in ways that were straight out of a gotcha scene in a slasher movie. I often felt a little disoriented and often even repulsed by the strangely twisted sculptures that jumped out of the shadows at me. Nothing, for instance, could have prepared me for the sight of a hundred department store mannequins converted into angels by the addition of twelve-foot wings and gauzy toga-like garments so ill-fitting that about a dozen of them were flashing their nipples at us. Really? Nipples? They thought it was necessary to take the time to paint nipples on the mannequin angels? Wow.

image of nippled angels at House On The Rock

stoned2 | 1:52 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, travel | Tags:
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