Memorialized in wax

Activist: An updated likeness of Bea Gaddy will be unveiled at Great Blacks in Wax Museum on what would have been her 69th birthday.

February 16, 2002|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

A wax figure of Bea Gaddy -- a woman called by many the "Mother Teresa of Baltimore" -- was last seen gracing the second floor of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, rubbing shoulders with the likes of civil rights leader Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., singer Billie Holiday and impeccably dressed ragtime composer Eubie Blake.

But in recent weeks, a vacant patch of carpet is the only sign that Gaddy was part of the Baltimore museum's exhibit showcasing famous Marylanders.

That will change Wednesday, when the museum unveils a new wax rendering of Gaddy on what would have been the Baltimorean's 69th birthday.

The ceremony will double as a fund-raiser benefiting Bea Gaddy Family Centers Inc., and return her to the company of more than 100 life-size museum likenesses presenting African-American history in three dimensions.

The figure is one of two additions to Baltimore's wax population. Last week, in connection with Black History Month, the museum and Baltimore's National Aquarium unveiled a wax replica of Henry Hall, the West Baltimore engineer whose donation of rare fish helped spawn the aquarium's world-class collection.

The exhibit -- on display through the month at the aquarium -- re-creates Hall's basement on Mosher Street, where he kept an alligator, an electric eel and a freshwater shark.

The Hall exhibit will later become part of the collection at the museum at 1603 E. North Ave., in a former city firehouse.

Gaddy, who rose from poverty to serve as an advocate for Baltimore's needy, and late in life won a City Council seat, had been enshrined in wax at the museum about seven years before her death in October of complications from breast cancer.

The original figure captured Gaddy at a younger age, dressed in an apron she often wore while handing out food and Christmas toys at her North Collington Avenue rowhouse, then called the Patterson Park Emergency Food Center.

`Update was needed'

But as Gaddy's appearance changed and the sphere of people touched by her deeds spread, visitors began to notice that rather than seeming identical twins, the wax Gaddy and real-life Gaddy more resembled distant cousins.

"People would say, `She doesn't look like that now,'" recalled the museum's executive director, Joanne M. Martin.

"And with her death, she will be frozen in people's memory. We felt an update was needed," Martin said.

While Gaddy's image -- with a puff of white hair and plum-sized cheeks -- is etched into the minds of many, just what the new figure looks like is so hush-hush that the museum staff has sequestered the 100-pound, 5-foot-4-inch figure until the unveiling.

No peeking

Organizers of the ceremony and even Gaddy's family have been shooed away from stealing a peek.

"I guess we're not going to be able to see the figure, huh?" said Gaddy's daughter Cynthia Campbell one afternoon when she stopped by the museum's office to drop off clothing for it.

"Oh no, baby doll, you don't want to do that," museum public relations coordinator Elizabeth Byrd told her. "Part of the joy of the event comes from seeing it the first time, and we don't want to take that away from you. All in due time."

So far, only a team of artisans, including a master sculptor, hair weaver and painter, has been allowed to get close to her likeness.

Armed with photographs and measurements of Gaddy taken before her death, it took artisans five months to create a finished head, hands and body.

The hair weaver had the tedious job of inserting human hair -- one strand at a time. Thin layers of translucent paint re-create her ebony skin tone, and prosthetic glass eyes were used for a lifelike gaze.

The $8,000 figure captures Gaddy in her role as a councilwoman, and Martin said Gaddy's clothing -- pants -- will set her apart from the museum's other female figures.

"She's the only female figure dressed the way she's dressed," Martin said. "She looks jazzy."

Planned before her death

The museum and Bea Gaddy Family Centers commissioned the update of the Gaddy exhibit three years ago.

The finished figure had been scheduled for unveiling Oct. 4, but when the activist was hospitalized, the event was canceled.

Gaddy died Oct. 3.

"We knew that we needed to postpone, no matter what happened," said Martin, the former director of the Learning Resources Center at Coppin State College who founded the museum in 1983 with her husband, Elmer P. Martin, a sociology professor at Morgan State University.

"We suggested the event be a fund-raiser so the money could go to her centers as a lasting tribute," she said.

More updates

Martin says the museum also plans updates of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., South African freedom fighter and first black president, Nelson Mandela, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose original figure was stolen the night after the museum moved in 1988 to its current home.

The first wax museum of African-American history in the nation, Great Blacks in Wax also is known for its evocative scenes, including a large-scale slave ship exhibit depicting the history of the Atlantic slave trade, a display on the role of black youth in making history and a chilling exhibit on lynching.

Gaddy's children, who are carrying on her work, say the museum will have even more significance for them knowing that their mother's likeness is there.

"It makes this place really special," said John Fowler, a son and Bea Gaddy Family Center board member. "It won't be just another place we pass by."

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