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 CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, travel | Tags:
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Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

nightmare image of unicorn head on a naked woman's bodyMy Darling B and I took Sean on a day trip to see The House On The Rock yesterday. “It’s something everyone has to do when they go to Wisconsin, and we haven’t done it yet,” she explained. So, in spite of a tiny bit of reluctance I may have detected from Sean, we jumped in the car early yesterday morning to hit the road. Okay, it was actually nine o’clock or so. Early for us.

Before heading to Spring Green where the house is at, we stopped at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner for a big, delicious breakfast. We anticipated being away most of the day because we were going to get tickets for The Ultimate Experience of the house, and didn’t want to run out of steam halfway through the tour of what is billed as the “marvels upon marvels of the grand vision of Alex Jordan,” the guy who built The House On The Rock. The Ultimate Experience is the ticket that lets you wander through all three sections of the fantasmagorical collection that has been amassed at the house over the years. B decided that, if we were going to do this thing, we were going to do the whole thing so we’d really have something to talk about.

We got there some time between ten and eleven o’clock on a day when the temperature hit 101 degrees. That’s sort of important, because the actual house part of The House On The Rock was built in the 1960s by a guy who might have been a genius when it came to building houses on rocks, but could have used a little more training in the subject of how to incorporate adequate central air conditioning into a vacation home. (Just kidding. I don’t think he gave it a moment’s thought until well after the house itself was finished.)

The house is actually two houses: There’s a gate house at the base of the rock where a fully-appointed kitchen and a low-slung dining room gave the residents a few modern amenities. Then there’s the main house perched high on a stack of sandstone overlooking a valley lush with oak trees. It must have been a truly beautiful vacation spot at one time, before it was surrounded by a parking lot, warehouses filled with bric-a-brac and an endless chain of covered walkways you can’t really see anything from.

image of House On The Rock, Spring Green, WIThe one quality of The House On The Rock that amazed me most was that I couldn’t see it very well. While we were outside, I couldn’t see it at all. The covered walkways all around the base of the rock zigzag every which way, but never at an angle that gave me a view of the house. Maybe I’m just being silly, but it seems to me that there ought to be at least one clear view of the main attraction. Even the Mighty Google could find just one image of it, a picture post card dating from who knows when, and it’s been recycled endlessly on tourist web sites and blog posts just like this one because, I would guess, people start to write about it and realize that they don’t have a clear photo of the outside.

Once I was inside the house I could take a pretty good look around, if I had the time and patience to wait for a break in the teeming mass of people that is constantly streaming through the cattle-chute cordon laid out to guide tourists through the house. I don’t know how big the house is – I imagine it’s pretty roomy for a couple on vacation, and probably still roomy with a couple of house guests along for fun. When there are a hundred people jammed into it, though, it’s as crowded as an elevator car. All I could see most of the time was the heads and shoulders of the people in front of and behind me as we shuffled through the narrow passageways and spread out whenever there was a little breathing space.

The house might be described as a warren of low-ceilinged rooms tucked here and there in the spaces where the rock parted wide enough for the builder to lay out a conversation pit or hang a row of windows. The rooms were connected by cliffhanging galleries or narrow passageways through clefts in the stone. At one time it must have been a wonderful place to explore, wandering from room to room, losing your way only to find yourself back in a familiar place again, but the rails laid out to guide people through the house have pretty much ruined the wandering charm the house once had.

image of The Infinity Room at the House on the RockThe highlight of the tour through the house is supposed to be The Infinity Room, which looks and feels like a tacked-on addition meant to satisfy tourists who bought just the ticket to tour the house and nothing else, to keep them from feeling ripped off. It’s more of a hallway than a room that sticks out 150 feet from the rock, with a window in the floor at the far end so you can see that you’re high above the oak trees in the valley below. While we were there, there was a gaggle of people at the end waiting their turn to get their pictures taken, so I guess the room turned out to be the money shot of the house tour after all.

If I had paid $28.50 for just this, the first leg of the tour, I would have left feeling ripped off – but no! There is so much more!

stoned | 6:07 am CST
Category: daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants, Seanster | Tags: ,
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