New York Madame Tussauds
Grant has a laugh with Cybill Shepherd. Woody Allen sits alone in the
Squeezed among the
theatres and cinemas of Times Square, tall and thin as if holding its
breath, is Madame Tussauds. Opened in November 2000 at a cost of
$50m, it would be easy to dismiss the place as just a building full of
wax people, and later on I probably will, but the craft on show has to
be admired. More than likenesses, the models have been described as exactnesses.
Even as a Brit there is something chilling, heart-stopping, about suddenly
finding yourself face to face with President Kennedy. His features are
so vivacious, his eyes so intense, I feel I am not so much looking at
him as he is looking at me.
One of the rooms in the nine-storey museum has been fitted out as an opulent
hall, complete with luxurious furnishings and an ornate indoor fountain,
like a matinée idols mansion from the golden age of Hollywood,
except filled not by Errol Flynn and his friends but party guests from
the modern-day celebrity world. Gentle music plays as Elton John chats
with Sarah Ferguson and Elle McPherson. Hugh Grant has a laugh with Cybill
Shepherd. Woody Allen sits alone in the corner.
Oddly enough, I find the most disappointing models in the museum are the
recreations of perhaps the most recognisable American icons of the twentieth
century. Somehow Marilyn and Elvis dont seem anywhere near as breathtaking
when standing still. Wax hips neither wiggle nor swivel. The sexual charisma
so essential to their legends is clearly impossible to capture no matter
how technically accurate the verisimilitude.
A small crowd-pleasing section of the museum is devoted to Madame Tussaud
herself and her contemporaries. Apparently Tussaud honed her skills during
the French Revolution, making death masks (basically life-size
replicas) of the heads left behind by the guillotine, preserving the faces
of their owners for history. Some of these disembodied heads are on show
on poles, but what visitors like most are the grisly recreations of the
Reign of Terror in action. We hear the screams as the guillotine
blade falls. We see the bruised and bloody torsos in the open graves of
moonlit cemeteries. A family near me is particularly excited by these
displays when, after some discussion, they are almost certain the French
Revolution actually happened. "Marie Antoinette was, like, a real
The $20 self-guided tour takes about an-hour-and-a-half to complete, ending
with a slightly bizarre and completely pointless film designed to highlight
the many wonderful things that have happened in New York over the years.
Unfortunately, and Im not quite sure how, the movie manages to give
the distinct impression that nothing much ever has. Does a street party
to celebrate the moon landing really count as one of the Big Apples
finest hours? Besides, I dont know what all this local history has
to do with Madame Tussauds anyway. Its just a building full
of wax people.
© Barry Dunstall September 2002
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