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Issue: Issue Fall 2009

"Madame Tussauds Comes to Town"

By: James Bartlett

Everyone who comes to Hollywood and strolls along the Walk of Fame or compares their hands and feet with the prints outside the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre secretly wishes that they’ll see their favorite celebrity.

In late summer, over 100 of the most famous stars in the world arrived on Hollywood Boulevard at the new Madame Tussauds Hollywood. There are no velvet ropes, barriers or bodyguards here though – you can get as many pictures as you like and get up close and personal with Brad Pitt, Zac Efron, John Wayne, Jennifer Lopez and many, many more.

Designed by local architects Michael Rotondi and John Ash, the $50 million building was the first Madame Tussauds ever to be built from the ground up. An angular, ultra-modern design, its faceted planes sheathed in zinc panels actually change its transparency depending on what time of day it is.

It has certainly made an impact on the crowded Boulevard, and Rotondi spoke about the challenge of building next to the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre:

"We initially wondered whether it was possible to even make a neutral building on such an iconic site that already has such great presence, (so) what we did was to simply think of it as a space, and we needed to enhance that space."

Using geometric drawing - a process akin to lasers showing the path of a bullet - they drew lines from every view, building and angle, looking to make the building a center. As a result people are almost subconsciously guided towards Madame Tussauds. "The best way to leverage the space is to make people stay, and here the sidewalk becomes the plaza, which then becomes the courtyard – like a piazza in Italy. It’s not just a public space metaphorically, it’s something that works as a public space – and hopefully sets an example for future development in Hollywood."

Adrian Jones, General Manager of Madame Tussauds Hollywood echoed Rotondi’s thoughts:

"We’re excited about being involved in the regeneration of Hollywood as a major tourist destination that Los Angeles can be proud of. (We wanted to) establish the building on the Hollywood landscape, not only from an architectural view but as a 'landmark' on a trip or vacation, establishing and reinforcing the 'brand' credentials of Madame Tussauds Hollywood and what it can offer to tourists and locals alike."

These ideas become clear in the tomato red-colored courtyard. It’s the perfect place to begin your unique journey, and guests step onto the red carpet to be met by President Obama (one of the most popular figures in the exhibition) and comedienne and celebrity interviewer Joan Rivers.

Over the course of three storeys you pass through 18 themed zones filled with all the amazingly realistic stars that you love – and love to hate. It’s the next best thing to hanging out with your favorite stars, so put on one of the wigs, hats or feather boas to get in the mood, take some pictures, and back home it will look like you were a star for the day.

Wannabe American Idols can sing karaoke for a fierce-looking Simon Cowell (and have him tell you how bad you were!) or you can go within biting distance of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and have him whisper in your ear about his favorite "meal" (the only time you wish some of the figures were behind bars!).

Highlights of my recent tour include attending the A-List Party - you can sit down for a drink and a chat with George Clooney, bring sexy back with Justin Timberlake (the figure who gets the most kisses!) – and then experience the Spirit of Hollywood with icons Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and a simmering James Dean – to say nothing of a very sexy Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.

Alfred Hitchcock is here with a celebration of his movie Psycho and the famous shower sequence, which features a very convincing scream supplied by Erin Click, the lucky winner of the recent "Scream Test" judged by Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds.

In the Crime zone, Marlon Brando as The Godfather is sitting at his desk, ready to make you an offer you can’t refuse - if you dare sit down - and in Modern Classics you can raise "your" stockinged leg to try and tempt The Graduate Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), who says: "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me".

Making Movies sees Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino directing their famous stars, while fans of explosions and car chases can enjoy Bruce Willis from Die Hard and live on the ceiling with Spider-Man in the Action Heroes zone.

Behind The Scenes zone is narrated by pop diva Beyoncé Knowles, who tells the story of exactly how Madame Tussauds made her figure, and here you can see a figure of the young Madame Tussaud herself. Over 200 years ago she was working in the Palace of Versailles as art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister when she was forced to prove her loyalty during the Revolution by making death masks of aristocrats executed by the guillotine.

A pioneering businesswoman who did most of her own publicity, Madame Tussauds subsequent exhibition became a kind of travelling newspaper, bringing the public face-to-face with the people in the headlines – heroes and villains alike – and in 1835 she took her exhibition on tour and established a museum in London. 175 years later, and Madame Tussauds can be found in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Berlin, Las Vegas, New York, Shanghai and Washington DC, with each location always featuring local celebrities and personalities as well as the big stars.

It takes 4-6 months to complete a figure – complete with human hair – and since they can be worth as much as $300,000 each, a special, behind-the-scenes team springs into action if a star changes his hairstyle or even gets a scratch.

Most recently, Madame Tussauds Hollywood unveiled the figure of the "King of Pop", Michael Jackson, and in the upcoming months Sylvester Stallone as Rocky and William Shatner, dressed for his role as James T. Kirk in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan will be unveiled.

The final stop on the tour is the Awards Ceremony zone, where you really are the star. Meryl, Denzel, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks are all here, and there’s a seat reserved for you. Share a joke with a cigar-chomping Jack Nicholson before your name is called, and you can finally say: "I’d like to thank the Academy…" DH