Tussaud's has eyes for N.Y.

Museum: House of wax promises all of the eerie detail, and some of the gore, of London's oddly elegant original.

April 26, 2000|By Glenn Collins | Glenn Collins,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Back in 1996, the issue wasn't all that complicated. If Madame Tussaud's of London brought its legendary wax museum to the Big Apple, exactly what would New Yorkers want to see?

But Manhattan focus groups provided answers that were underwhelming at best, said Andrew Tansley, the English director of the Tussaud's Group Ltd. Tansley would observe through a one-way mirror as city residents mumbled politely about seeing a mix of urban icons, historic figures, rock stars, politicians and sports legends. But few city residents in the focus groups had actually been to Tussaud's, only half had ever heard of it, and many said that the American wax museums they had seen were awfully cheesy.

Then Tansley would open a door and bring in Arnold Schwarzenegger.

OK, it wasn't really Arnold. It was a life-size Tussaud wax sculpture a tight white T-shirt and slacks. It had cost $50,000 and had taken six months to create.

"People were gob-smacked by the uncanny likeness, and the reaction was extraordinary," Tansley recalled. "They said things like, `Look at the tiny veins,' and, `Those eyes are really creepy.' And that's exactly the tremendous sense of excitement we're aiming to bring to New York City."

This is the beginning of a $2.5 million publicity blitz for Madame Tussaud's New York. (In England, the surname is generally pronounced tuh-SAWDZ, but Francophiles pronounce it to rhyme with modes.)

The new Tussaud's museum intends to bring the English institution's fixation with fame to the new Times Square, showcasing the company's patented high-camp amalgam of breathtaking portrait artistry, creepy glitz and jolly fascination with gruesome spectacle.

The five-story, $50 million wax pal- ace is under construction at 234 W. 42nd St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues, behind the landmark facade of the old Harris Theater. Tussaud's is aiming for an opening date in October.

Among the nearly 200 notables in the new museum will be a Who's Who of celebrities appearing only in the New York Tussaud's. They include Woody Allen, Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Katie Couric, Joe DiMaggio, Amelia Earhart, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Wayne Gretzky, Ernest Hemingway, Matt Lauer, Annie Leibovitz, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Yoko Ono, Dorothy Parker, Gov. George Pataki, Gen. Colin Powell, Christopher Reeve, Sitting Bull, Liz Smith, Donald Trump and Andy Warhol.

Of course, the New York Tussaud's will also offer crowd-pleasing wax images that appear in the London Tussaud's, including Diana, Princess of Wales; the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Larry King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and John F. Kennedy.

Ticket prices will range from $12.75 to $19.95; visitors are expected to stay an average of two hours.

Tony Peluso, Tussaud's American director, said the New York museum would not be a replica of the ones in London, Amsterdam or Las Vegas. "We don't want to be the same in any city, anywhere in the world," he said.

But the grander ambition of Tussaud's is to import the implacably weird spirit of the original. For all its strangeness, the London Tussaud's has acquired a certain elegance because of its relationship with the celebrities who pose for portraits, including the Royals (every reigning British monarch back to George III has sat for a museum sculptor). "We hope to create a similar cachet and tradition in New York City," Tansley said.

Clearly, with its new 49-year lease with a 50-year extension, Tussaud's is bullish on America, and perhaps not without reason. Since the 18th century, Tussaud's has made much of the artistry of its wax images, created using the technique of the founding diva, Madame Tussaud.

Its likenesses are prepared by artisans who take 250 intricate measurements of celebrities' body proportions and create the sculptures from visual observation and photographic analysis.

Each face is built up from a 30-piece plaster mold, which is filled with wax, then painted. The acrylic eyes are positioned from inside the mask, and hair is inserted strand by strand.

Marie Tussaud was sprung from imminent guillotining in revolutionary Paris so she could create death masks of aristocrats, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Fleeing the Napoleonic wars to England in 1802, she toured her portrait museum on wagons throughout Britain for 33 years before establishing a permanent London museum in 1835. Tussaud's has occupied its current location near the Baker Street subway station for 116 years.

Madame Tussaud died in London in 1850 at the age of 89.

New Yorkers will be spared the full gory London experience: victims being garroted in a torture chamber, Marat being knifed in his bath, Joan of Arc being burned at the stake, and the figure of Vlad the Impaler with a victim's bloody head on a stake. Indeed, the very phrase "chamber of horrors" was coined to describe the grisly sights in Tussaud's basement, and the phrase has been appropriated by Tussaud's ever since.

Be forewarned, though: in the new museum, there will be an exhibition called "Madame Tussaud's Story." It will show her hobnobbing with Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon and Josephine, all of whom she sculpted. And, as might be expected, customers will be offered tableaux of the guillotine, and Madame hunting through piles of bloody chopped-off heads so she can create her legendary death masks, some of which will be on view.

But those New Yorkers with more delicate constitutions will be alerted. Tansley said that there would be a large sign outside the guillotine room that will warn the squeamish, so, he said helpfully, "those who have no lust for blood can bypass this completely."

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