Springfield: Drewseum / McMillan House

by Tim Gilmore, 2/5/2022

The face of his younger self stares across the room from the disembodied head of Dr. Blood, the Physician of Fright. The man who once played the Marquis de Sade on stage and Bozo the Clown on TV is something of his own Professor Phobetor, circus sideshow impresario. Everything’s “guaranteed to be,” as the poster for the exhibit A Convergence of Cryptyck Antiquities at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum promises, “fictitiously factual.” It’s “a Drew story,” for which the truth is sometimes Drewcified, boundaries blurring in the wonder as Drew Edward Hunter opens another set of pocket doors and kindly guides his guests through the Drewseum.

All houses are worlds within worlds. In that sense, the 1904 house at the corner of West Third and Silver Streets in old Springfield serves as metaphor. Every room has a theme, a soundtrack (really an ontology and cosmology) distinct from the worlds of the rooms on either side. Yet as Drew introduces guests to the Krewe of the Loving Dead or the Odditopia Guest Cottage, the distinct possibility that Mr. Queeby moves with you through the house, just out of sight, recurs insistently.

For the longest time Drew never knew Mr. Queeby’s name. This Victorian in proper livery, whose tail protrudes through the tails of his coat, originally held a mother-of-pearl tray for calling cards. Mr. Queeby is not quite monkey really, but neither is any man. It’s his notquite nature, even more than his glass eyes, from which the disquiet abounds. He’s too in-between, won’t fit in his box, too true.

Drew’s grandmother, after whom he’s named, bought Mr. Queeby, who stands on his plinth at the foot of the stairs and faces the front door in mid-stride, for three dollars in 1948. Growing up and spending time at his grandmother’s house in Shreveport, Louisiana, Drew frequently imagined how Mr. Queeby hopped down from his perch when no one was looking and darted about the corners and shadows. And sure enough, Mr. Queeby disappeared in 1972.

Drew Edward Hunter, 1973

The mystery of the man-monkey’s disappearance fell into a lull for years until, as Drew tells it, seated at Mr. Queeby’s side, he received a phone call in 1979. The voice on the other end said, “I have your monkey.” There was only one monkey the voice could mean. “Who are you?” Drew asked and the line went dead. The next call came from a rehab clinic, an employee reaching out on behalf of a patient.

The patient, who had once been Drew’s grandmother’s paperboy, had claimed for years he’d found the monkey in his own grandmother’s attic. It was broken to pieces. His family thought it cursed, surely no more logical explanation existed for the paperboy’s decline into addiction, and it needed to get back to its rightful owner.

the house of Drew Phillips, Drew Edward Hunter’s grandmother, Shreveport, Louisiana

So Drew collected the statue, reassembled it and returned it to its proper place in his grandmother’s house where he was living at the time. He still didn’t know the man-monkey’s name, hadn’t considered it might have one. The next phone call seemed a wrong number, the voice of an elderly woman. “Is Mr. Queeby there?” she wanted to know.

Drew was sorry, but certainly there was no one there by that name. She called back. And she called back again. And she told him she knew Mr. Queeby was there. He had told her he’d be there. Drew’s eyes cast around the room until caught in the light in the man-monkey’s own. And he said that yes, in fact, Mr. Queeby was right there. And she thanked him and said, “That’s all I needed to know.”

negative courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

It’s been six years now since Drew bought and moved into the Colonial Revival style William McMillan House at 149 West Third Street and 25 years since his position as vice president of creative design at Sally Corporation, which creates “dark rides” and animatronic figures, first brought him to Jacksonville. He’d lived elsewhere in Springfield, on Laura Street, before moving to Geodesica, one of several “Round House” designs by the optometrist and amateur architect Gilbert Spindel, further up the Northside. He toured this house when its previous owners, Josef and Carolyn Molenda, lived here, gave Joe his card and told him that if he ever wanted to sell the house to let him know.

the round room at the center of Geodesica, as repurposed by Drew Edward Hunter

So the Molenda House, its gardens of antique vine roses, lady palm and silver-blue African palms, became the Drew House. It started as the home of Eula and William McMillan, manager for the McMillan Brothers Copper Works, which specialized in “seamless turpentine stills” and held offices in Jacksonville, Fayetteville, Mobile and Savannah, where Thomas McMillan built a multi-towered faux-Italianate mansion. After a dressmaker named Lenore Fields called the house home, Jewish Lithuanian-born Jacob Safer founded the congregation of Knesas Israel here, hosting services in the house as the Jacksonville Jewish Center rose next door in the late 1920s.

from Jacksonville and Florida Facts, 1906

But hasn’t Drew Edward Hunter always been here? And isn’t his grandmother Drew, whom he so dearly loved growing up and whose Shreveport house was always so much his own, here now? Aren’t they built in, “contributing factors”? Warp and weft?

early 1950s

Here he is, in the library, standing outside in the lost sunshine written into this photograph, early 1950s, beside the toy train made of painted wooden blocks with his initials on the side. And here’s that same train above a shelf of ghost stories in the library. Out front is the porch glider where a young couple who would become Drew’s parents sat and held hands while dating in 1943. Here’s his grandmother’s house, corner of Creswell Avenue and Wichita Street in 1975 in Shreveport, and here’s that house hung in the hallway on the second floor in 2022 in Jacksonville. Here’s the first Drew, Drew’s grandmother, standing over that mammoth turkey on that receding Thanksgiving, right here in the Drewseum.

Drew Phillips, Drew Edward Hunter’s grandmother, circa 1956

And here, everywhere, is Drew at eight years old. It was the year of an explosion of wonder that Drew never let go. Most people, he says, grow up to “repress their childhood wonder.” All our childhoods take root in wonder, but Drew says, “People forget where they came from.” He hasn’t.

He was eight years old when he first rode the Space Age sea-themed rides at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica. The giant tenticles of its underwater monsters have never loosed their grip on his imagination. You could find them in the murals of the round room at the center of Geodesica. Now you find them in the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Theater in the Drewseum, along with the faux-stone couches his longtime partner Charles made when Drew was creative director at the Dallas Wax Museum.

And he was eight years old when he first saw the 1958 Technicolor movie The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad at the Saenger Theatre in downtown Shreveport and the stop-motion cyclops created by animator Ray Harryhausen came alive and came for him. Soon Drew was studying everything Harryhausen did, entranced by the super low-fi special effects, memorizing every movement of the skeleton sword fight in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. Now that cyclops, with its threatening club and the single horn rising from his skull, faces the burl and heart pine staircase near Mr. Queeby.

The next year, Drew’s parents took him to see Journey to the Center of the Earth and when they left the theater, his mother said, “Well, how’d you like it?” and Drew said, “I loved it, but I really want the music!” So began his lifelong love for the compositions of Bernard Herrmann, who’d also created the score for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Hitchcock films including Psycho and Vertigo.

“So often we focus on the bad stuff, the things that screwed us up,” Drew says, “and you have to deal with those things, but how did everything good and creative about you come about?” Guests move through those stories by ascending the wide front porch, climbing the stairs, entering the former driver’s-cottage out back. Telling stories is one of the oldest things people do, Drew notes. “We started telling stories when we started building fires.” Everybody owns stories, “but most of us don’t know how to tell them.”

Rising along the wall with the stairs are the illustrations Drew made in 1969 for an Old Testament class at Centenary College of Shreveport. Sick with mononucleosis, he thought he might have to leave school, but instead of final exams, he illustrated Lot’s Wife, Job, Jacob wrestling with the angel, the Creation, the Tower of Babel and other scenes. His professor said the illustrations, clearly influenced by Aubrey Beardsley but clearly also Drew Edward Hunter, showed a mastery of the understanding of fable.

Drew’s 1969 Beardsleyesque illustration of Jacob and the Angel

It’s not until he takes the common question, “Where did the clown go wrong?” beneath portraits of the terrifying zombie clown Oozo – “Funnier Dead than Alive!” – one of Drew’s many alter egos, out back in the Odditopia Guest Cottage, that Drew talks about his year and a half stint as Bozo the Clown on The Bozo Big Top Show back in Shreveport. Drew quit Bozo at the same time he illustrated the Old Testament stories, for being sick brought an ultimatum: it was clown or college. Drew stayed in school.

The house as autobiography unwinds ubiquitously. There’s the paperback copy of the 1964 Peter Weiss play Marat/Sade for which a young Drew played the Marquis de Sade and was “whipped on stage in front of [his] parents and his grandmother.” There’s the Art Deco poster for Drew’s 1984 stage adaption of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. In Drew’s hands, the story becomes Horripillation, the mad scientist switches gender and the jungle becomes the Arctic, granting the tagline, “The coldest place on earth is Dr. Moreau’s heart.”

He concedes that Horripillation, a literary word for when the hair on your arms or neck stands up from fear, excitement or cold, could work as the title of his autobiography, but he’s already picked out I Was a Pansy in the Giant’s Garden, a reference to an elementary school play in which Drew wanted to be the giant but was cast as a flower.

Another poster Drew designed shows him as Dr. Blood, the Physician of Fright, memorializing “The Gothic Years” when Drew brought the character he created to life at the Louisiana State Fair, 1975 to 1985. A 72 year old Drew approaches the disembodied wax head of Dr. Blood and unmasks him, revealing the face of a 32 year old Drew. The same head was the Apostle Andrew seated at the Last Supper at the Dallas Wax Museum in 1989.

Across the room, bathed in red light, abides the wax countenance of Drew’s partner Charles, who died in his arms on February 9, 2007 in the Round House. Charles, whose father was a Southern Baptist minister of music, is cast here as Judas Iscariot from the Last Supper, now sporting a bowtie and pinch fedora, haunting but magical, both epic and lyric, and how could he not always have been here; and how could he not always remain?

The original Dr. Blood burned in the wax museum fire 11 months after Patsy Wright’s murder. Patsy and her sister Sally Horning co-owned the Dallas Wax Museum. Drew, as Dr. Blood, saw Patsy that last night at the haunted house preview. At three in the morning, October 23, 1987, Patsy called Sally and told her she couldn’t breathe. She took a shot of NyQuil every night before bed and someone had laced that final jigger with strychnine.

When the wax museum burned almost a year later, suspicion tipped, in some people’s minds, away from the two people who might have killed Patsy Wright for reasons of passion and toward the two suspects who might have killed her for greed. TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Inside Edition aired stories on the case, but the mystery was never solved.

The Drewseum is its own, totally sui generis. Still it’s the house that remains. To walk through this house is to meander Drew Hunter’s autobiography, to take a dark ride through his imagination and memory. Trying to imagine this same house hosting Orthodox Jewish services in the 1920s, I wonder if we have something backward. People add their lives to a house’s collection and move on. Instead of calling this structure the McMillan House or the Molenda House, perhaps its inhabitants should become 149 West Third McMillan, 149 West Third Fields, 149 West Third Safer and so on.

image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Even so, it would take a whole volume to catalog the Drewseum. This story has barely begun. I haven’t mentioned the voodoo shrine in the room of the round red table, nor Drew’s friend and neighbor’s radiation mask from his cancer treatments, nor composer Verne Langdon’s Carnival of Souls playing through the swirling dark red and purple lights. Langdon’s song plays once as vocals, as harpsichord, as Kalliope.

I haven’t mentioned the back sleeping porch where Drew unrolls the scroll that tells of the Krewe of the Loving Dead, while “Down in Davy Jones’ Locker” echoes off treasure chests, longbones, galleons and blades. Nor the nails protuding from the melted book. Nor Gloria the Glamor Toad demurely crossing her ankles beneath Nina Rota’s score for Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½. Nor the freakshow train cars, modeled on Professor Phobetor’s traveling sideshow that derailed in the Louisiana swamps in 1936 – “It’s a Drew story.” Nor how the blue lights glow up through the palms beside the back cottage and beneath the second floor side porch for the cats. Nor the toy town, with its banks and hotels, that survived Drew’s childhood and carries on its life in his library.

One story flows into the next. Worlds open into worlds. So goes the old house. So does every house. And for which, in that way, this house becomes, as walk-through dark-ride autobiography of Drew Edward Hunter, not so much house as absolute metaphor.