When someone mentions portraits, instantly we picture perhaps the most masterful of all painters, busily working before his easel while a comfortably posed model sits patiently to be immortalised on canvas. Think again. How about you walk into a large, theatrically lit room designed to look like the garden court of a Baroque villa and all around are dozens of people in small groups, seemingly frozen in time. And not just people, but instantly recognisable people, Oprah, Katy Couric, Bill Clinton, Al Roker, Mohammed Ali, Michael Jackson, Elvis... ELVIS? Elvis is dead...well, supposedly so anyway. Not in this case. He's been brought back to life...well, almost. If you haven't guessed, you've just stumbled into one of Madame Tussaud's portrait galleries. There are five of them now, London, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, and the newest one, just opening this week, in New York.
And before we go any further, in case you're picturing a dark, meandering concourse of individually lit museum tableaux with nothing but historic figures like Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Hitler, and Roosevelt, forget it. In New York at least, you can walk right up to the figures, touch them, put your arm around them, get your picture taken with them, even talk to them...provided you're good at holding up the entire conversation yourself. They still call it a museum, and they still refer to them as portraits, but it takes only a few moments to realise the old term "wax museum" doesn't begin to convey the reality that you've become a part of the most famous (and best) wax-portrait entertainment attraction in the world. And yes, taking their lead from Disney, some of them even move.
Madame Tussaud's in London proclaims itself to be two hundred years old. Actually it's just a tad short of that. The talented French portrait artist opened her gallery there in 1802. Marie Groscholtz was born in Strasbourg Austria in 1761. She was only sixteen when she modelled her first figure in wax, that of the French philosopher and author, Francois Voltaire. Success came almost instantly as Marie was invited to come live at Versailles and teach art to the children of King Louis XVI's sister. With the bedlam that accompanied the French Revolution, Marie was imprisoned, sharing a cell with her mother and a woman destined to become the future Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon. Upon her release, Marie was forced to prove her allegiance to the revolution by making death masks of those being executed, including her former employers, the King and Queen themselves. And while it may have been a rather gruesome task, it was important training in her art. After the revolution, she inherited the sizeable wax collection of Phillippe Curtis, the most prominent wax portrait artist of her day. The following year, she acquired a husband and the more familiar name, Madame Tussaud.
Although her travelling wax figure exhibit began in Paris and toured most of Europe, it was in London, on famed Baker Street, where Madame Tussaud took root. It's where, in 1846, her famous "Chamber of Horrors" depicting episodes she knew well from the French Revolution first debuted. And it's also where she died in 1850. Her grandsons moved the museum to its current address on Marylebone Road in 1884 and saw the enterprise through its first century. By now a British cultural institution, despite its roots, much of the museum was destroyed by fire in 1925 and then little more than fifteen years later, heavily damaged again by a WW II bomb, which ironically left their figure of Adolph Hitler completely unscathed.
By the 1950s Madame Tussaud's was back in business with the addition of England's first planetarium. The 70s saw a branch open in Amsterdam. Then last year saw Hollywood moved to Las Vegas and now, there are two more sites, in Hong Kong and New York. Tussaud's has sunk a solid piece of change ($50 million) into their five-story, 85,000 square foot Times Square attraction. Almost 200 figures including Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Woody Allen, Larry King, Brad Pitt, Elvis of course, Tony Bennett and others all seem to be enjoying the attention of home folks and tourists alike. Each one has taken over six months to craft, entailing over 200 measurements. Each head and each set of hands has been modelled first in clay, then cast in wax from plaster moulds, hand painted in oils, adorned with individually implanted human hair, and then attached to a fibreglass body. In some cases the figures have even donned clothes once belonging to the celebrities they represent. And lest you think painters may have been forgotten, thanks to Madame Tussaud and her descendants, you can still mingle with the likes of Andy Warhol, who seems almost as alive as Elvis.