The Accidental Wax Collector: A Conversation with Tim League

In 1997, Tim and Karrie League opened the first Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, introducing an eclectic slate of programming, live events, and in-theater dining to the city’s flourishing film scene. Since then, the company has expanded into a popular theater chain with a unique approach to bringing art-house cinema, genre films, and blockbusters—both repertory and first-run—under one roof. Last week, the Drafthouse opened its twenty-fifth location, in an expansive downtown Brooklyn space boasting seven theaters and a Victorian era–themed bar called the House of Wax, which doubles as an eighteenth-century German wax museum.

Though Tim is known for being a voracious collector of movie ephemera, his latest collection—comprised of medical dioramas, life-size sculptures, and more macabre oddities—is his first foray into collecting wax. The morning after the new theater’s opening night celebration, he stopped by Criterion for a visit and chatted with me about his life as a collector and his eccentric new acquisitions.

Has collecting always been a passion of yours?

I’ve always been a collector. I had a number of collections when I was a kid, but the most significant one was my collection of beer cans, of all things. I started collecting those when I was about eleven.

Empty beer cans?

Yes, although when my father would go overseas or on trips, I would give him specific instructions that he needed to drain the can by stabbing two holes on the bottom with an icepick, so that it stayed pristine and unopened on the top.

I assume there was a period of trial and error before you realized that was the best technique.

Strangely, as a boy, I was a member of the Beer Can Collectors Association of America. I became buddies with a postmaster in my small town, and he would drive me to these beer-can swap meets where I would take our duplicates and trade one-on-one with collectors in a big arena. But I also collected coins and rocks—at one point, I thought I was going to be a geologist. And then, when I got into the cinema industry, it got serious and more expensive.

Were you also collecting movies?

I first started collecting trailers. We opened our first theater in an old theater built in the 1940s, and I had this amazing feeling of joy the first time I started cleaning out the projection room and found a stash of old vintage trailers. It blew my mind. So I played them, and then I started subscribing to this magazine called Big Reel, in which all these film collectors, typically old men, would post ads of their duplicates or things they wanted to sell. I got seriously into that magazine, and I would have it FedExed to me so that I would get it two days earlier than anyone else and jump on the deals. That segued into posters and film prints, and then we established the nonprofit American Genre Film Archive with what I had in my personal collection.

The vintage posters in the new theater are incredible. It feels really special to be surrounded by them rather than what you find in typical movie theaters. Are those all from your collection?

Yeah, they’re all mine.

How did you go about finding them?

The collection at the new Brooklyn theater is made up of Turkish posters that came from a few sources. My wife did a destination swim in Turkey a few years ago—she swam across the Hellespont—and while she was doing that, I found out through friends that there was a poster depot still around in Istanbul. I spent an entire day going through stacks of tens of thousands of Turkish posters, so I got a bunch then. And last year, at Fantastic Fest, the theme was Turkish exploitation cinema, so we brought in a bunch of Turkish filmmakers. The lead programmer at the festival is Turkish, so he augmented the collection. I particularly love hand-drawn posters. There are about sixty frames in the theater now, and the posters will be swapped out probably twice a year. There’s an Indian collection that’s ready to go up, and we’re working on building an Egyptian poster collection for later next year.

Tell me about the House of Wax bar in the Brooklyn theater, which features an 1880s German wax museum collection.

It was about a year and a half ago now that I was on a ski trip, and in the middle of that I got this random call from a guy in Brooklyn who said he got my name from somebody who knew that I had a collecting disease. He was looking for a home for this collection, and he had forty-eight hours to find a buyer—otherwise, it was going to go off to auction to be broken up and sold piecemeal. Initially, he wanted me to reach out to people like Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson—celebrities who are known hoarders—and I did reach out to a few. But after I slept on it, I was like, you know, we’ve got this bar space that’s not programmed yet, and I like to do something unique with the bars in each theater that we open.

I threw a curveball at the construction and architecture teams by completely scrapping what we were going to do and moving in a different direction. I was fascinated by the idea of this space where thousands of people would come everyday on the weekends to see wax dioramas. There’s a serial-killer diorama, a torture chamber, a weird historical section, a lot of anatomy and pathology. You don’t think of today’s wax museums as being major draws, but back in the day they were much more common. It turns out that these things were called “the Panopticon,” “the Show of Everything,” and movies, which came in at the same price point, put them out of business. There are a lot of other parallels between what was done in “the Panopticon” and what became the modern exploitation film, and how guys like Kroger Babb were basically able to peddle soft-core pornography under the guise of education and disease prevention. These guys in the wax diorama business invented that, and it was later appropriated by the cinema. So you can weave a tale of how this proto-cinema environment left a mark on the movies.

You’ve also just acquired an Amish wax museum.

There was a story that got out there about this strange Amish wax museum that was for sale on Craigslist. Somebody found the Craigslist ad with these really creepy pictures of twenty-six Amish children in a basement with little tiny desks, and there were intimations that some of it might be animatronic. It was just a curiosity piece, but now that I am a bona fide wax-museum curator, I e-mailed the woman who placed the ad and made a pitch saying, hey, we have a wax museum that’s just opened up and we’d like put the collection in our museum.

It was in Burnham, Pennsylvania, right in the middle of Amish country, and the fact that we were going to handle it and preserve it and be respectful of it meant a lot. It had been housed in an 1870s single-room school house, which was turned into a museum after they stopped having classes there in the early 1960s. The classroom was re-created with all these different scenes: there’s a little boy pulling a girl’s hair and she’s screaming, there’s another boy who is animatronically tattling on her to one of the teachers and another boy erasing a chalk board, and it’s all controlled through pneumatics. Before I was a cinema owner, I was a mechanical engineer, so I’m going to try to dust off my old engineering skills and get the animatronics back in order.

Will other items be rotating into the House of Wax, or is this everything?

That’s everything. There are a few little odds and ends that we didn’t have room for, but not much. There’s always a possibility that if other collections become available, I may fall prey to my addiction again.

Amish wax museum photos courtesy of Tim and Karrie League. Theater photos by Victoria Stevens.

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