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The Madame Tussaud's Experience

By Julie Wiskirchen, with photos by Julie Wiskirchen and Mary Ladd

I was excited to hear that Madame Tussaud's wax museum had become the latest addition to Giuliani's Times Square amusement park. I'm a wax museum connoisseur. In my essay on "Why I Should Be Accepted to Notre Dame's Competitive Semester Abroad in London Program," I listed two reasons: (a) to become a better writer by immersing myself in British literary history and (b) to have a chance to visit the wax mecca, Madame Tussaud's. Somehow, they let me go to London despite this essay. I must have filled the "quirky eccentric" slot. So, I got to visit the hallowed halls. It was everything I dreamed and more, blowing away such American wannabes as the National Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg (history class is dull..history in wax is stultifying), the now defunct St. Louis Wax Museum (which sinned by placing all its wax figures from John F. Kennedy to John Wayne along one hallway as if they were in a police line-up but nearly redeemed itself with a very creepy section of dioramas depicting the life of Christ), and the Hollywood Wax Museum (which scored points with an excellent life-like Jack Nicholson clad in his pink Cerutti Witches of Eastwick outfit).

Just like its London predecessor, New York's Madame Tussaud's scores because of its open plan. Most of the wax stars are not arrayed in glass cases or plunked down in cheap dioramas. They're displayed in a garden party setting where you can mingle with them. And we did. Without shame and with very little dignity. You can look into the stars' eyes and declare your love-or hate. You can have an "experience" (note: they sell the experience for $19.95, including a really bad movie, while admission to the museum alone is $16).

After buying our tickets and taking an elevator to the top floor of the museum, we left the elevator and found ourselves smack in the middle of a swank garden party, feeling somewhat underdressed but eager to hobnob with the glitterati. I was impressed by the first figure that greeted us--a dapper Harrison Ford, updated with a greying brush cut and the earring that marked the beginning of his mid-life rebellion. Harrison is an old celebrity obsession of mine. We go way back, Harrison and I. So standing next to him gave me a perverse thrill (and trust me, he looked much less waxy in person than he does in the photo). We worked the room, admiring the Nicolas Cage, the Woody Allen, and particularly the Donald Trump, who was accurate to the point of having ear hair. The Donald's steely gaze seemed to be fixed on Ivana, who was stationed across the room and not interested.

I marveled at how short most of the stars were, like Regis Philbin. I could have rested my drink on his head, but I thought that might upset the security guards. I thought about my brush with the flesh and blood Regis. I was a fan of his show while in college at Notre Dame, his alma mater. Regis came to campus for a football game and my friend Kathleen spotted him at the bookstore. She harassed him for an autograph for me. She made Regis wait as she searched for paper, eventually digging through her pockets and finding an ATM slip. The autograph reads, "Julie, where are you? Kathleen is bothering me. Love, Regis Philbin." I kept the autograph and found this brush with a celebrity amusing, but it was not exactly an "experience." Somehow posing with a wax Regis was more exciting than getting a secondhand autograph.

In the more formal room of dead celebrities, I was surprised to see a not-that-famous wax Quentin Crisp. The plaque said he'd sat for this very realistic dummy just a few days before his death. When I first came to New York, Quentin was the first celebrity I saw in his natural habitat (for Quentin, that was the East Village). He passed me on the street and went into a bank. I pointed him out to my friends but they didn't know who he was. I didn't say anything to Quentin, not because I was awestruck the way I was when I saw Ozzy Osbourne at a signing (a deer in the headlights would be an apt description of me that day--and of Ozzy most days) or Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward at Carnegie Hall (I had better seats than them--ha ha). I just didn't have anything to say to Quentin. I'm not a fan and didn't want to interact with him, just felt happy that I could report a celebrity sighting, however minor, to friends back in the Midwest. At Madame Tussaud's, I sat next to the Quentin and a lady with a southern accent asked me, "Do you know who that lady is?" I said, somewhat over-simplistically, "That's a guy. Quentin Crisp. He was a gay writer." She said, "Oh, well, he looks like a lady." Poor Quentin--even his wax likeness attracts derision.

A historical section gives a peek into Madame Tussaud's personal history, with some of the actual wax death masks she made of Marie Antoinette and other victims of the guillotine. They say she had the job of digging through piles of bodies to find the heads and made death masks of every victim. And you thought your job sucked.

We watched a behind-the-scenes video and saw how the wax Al Roker was created. Much time was spent counting Al's chins to achieve an exact replica. They have lots of photos of the stars with their wax likenesses and thank-you notes from the stars who were pleased with the depictions (except Joan Rivers, who lamented that the sculptors didn't make her look 10 pounds thinner...come on, Joan, you're already skeletal..when will this Ally McBeal/Lara Flynn Boyle thinness mania end??).

Madame Tussaud's lets every tourist return from New York saying they've had their photo taken with a star. The basement is filled with a mix of today's pop stars and some strange choices, like Mark Spitz, who was probably hauled out of the London Museum's storage room. Mary was disappointed with the wax Cher, who was barefoot for some reason and looked more like Jennifer Lopez. Still, there's something for everyone in this area. We saw a group of geeky Indian guys patiently waiting their turn to be photographed with the Bill Gates.

Our extra $3 for the "experience" entitled us to watch a movie called It Happened in New York. We were hoping for a history of Madame Tussaud's but instead got a cheesy computer-animated mini-IMAX flick. Skip the movie unless you consider fake snow spewing out of air conditioning vents to be an "experience." The movie theater dumped us out in the shop, of course, where I have never seen so much tacky schlock. It was like Spencer Gifts on steroids with Lucy, Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn sections. They had lots of cheap crap for sale, but also a couple of cases of authentic celebrity memorabilia at outrageous prices.

Madame Tussaud's is a must-visit for pop culture fiends. Even the most casual People magazine reader enjoys the chance to get a pic with their favorite star. The museum offers celebrity interaction without the nervous tension of wondering if you're saying the wrong thing or the fear that you're bothering the celebrity while the celebrity is grocery shopping. It's a chance to get up close and personal with a simulacrum. Think about it--we never see the real celebrities anyway. We see them on giant movie screens or as dots in a concert arena. It makes sense that we'll pay money to see wax likenesses of them, statues that would burn up like celluloid and disco albums and disappear into nothingness. Who ya calling dummy?

See more photos with commentary from our visit to Madame Tussaud's

Discuss your brushes with celebrities, wax or otherwise, here.


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