January 8, 2012 in Features, Travel

Hollywood wax museums battle for precious customers

Hugo Martin Los Angeles Times
 

From left, Joanna Yacob, Hannan Matali and Matali Mohammed pose alongside a wax figure of President Barack Obama in a mock Oval Office at Madame Tussauds in Hollywood. The museum’s figures are created by a team in London.
(Full-size photo)

Wax museums:

The hows of wax

 A star such as Jim Carrey doesn’t come around every day, but wax sculptors say they can reproduce him in about six months, down to his brown eyes and signature, toothy grin. The celebrity replicas featured at the Hollywood Wax Museum and at Madame Tussauds are crafted using some similar techniques.

 Research: Both wax museums collect photos, death masks or other renditions of the celebrity. Whenever possible, Madame Tussauds invites the celebrities for a sitting to have more than 250 measurements taken. The Hollywood Wax Museum rarely gets a celebrity to pose for a sitting, relying more heavily on close-up photos.

 Clay sculpture: Professional sculptors make a clay bust of the celebrity based on the photos and, when possible, the measurements. This can take 10 to 12 weeks.

 Molds: Molds are made from the clay sculptures.

 Wax: Hot wax is poured into the molds and left to cool and harden.

 Hair and skin color: The wax heads are removed from the molds so that hair, eyelashes, whiskers and eyebrows can be plugged in, one strand at a time – a process that can take as long as five weeks. Oil-based paint is applied for the skin color.

 Eyes and teeth: At the sitting, Madame Tussauds’ artists compare the celebrity’s eyes with stock glass eyes and use watercolors to match variations in the iris and sclera colors. Teeth are porcelain or dental acrylic and colored to match.

 Clothing: Madame Tussauds asks celebrities to donate the clothes that will be worn by the wax figures. The Hollywood Wax Museum hand-makes the costumes.

 Cost: Madame Tussauds estimates each figure to cost up to $300,000 each. The Hollywood Wax Museum declined to discuss the cost to produce its figures.

LOS ANGELES – Dissing Angelina Jolie normally isn’t the best way to get ahead in this town.

But tough times call for tough tactics in the war of the Hollywood wax museums.

Madame Tussauds, which considers itself the ne plus ultra of wax artistry – with the $25 ticket price to match – is trying to best its cheaper competitor, the Hollywood Wax Museum, with a new marketing blitz stressing the defects in its rival’s paraffin starlets, singers and comics.

In a wax version of a cola taste test, Madame Tussauds plans to let visitors decide whose figures most closely resemble their glamorous living counterparts. Madame Tussauds has begun placing a celebrity replica in its lobby alongside a life-size cut-out photo of the same figure snapped at the Hollywood Wax Museum. First up was Jolie.

The message: Our Angie is hot. Theirs is not.

Madame Tussauds plans to rotate the figures every few days. It’s also putting up posters in its lobby, citing negative online reviews of the Hollywood Wax Museum next to positive reviews for Madame Tussauds.

“I personally think we are better than the Hollywood Wax Museum,” said Colin Thomas, general manager of Madame Tussauds, which opened its $60-million attraction in a prime location next to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 2009.

Tej Sundher, whose grandfather opened the Hollywood Wax Museum a block away in 1965, says he isn’t fazed by Madame Tussauds’ sniping. He said his tickets, priced at $15.95, offer visitors good value for their money. And while he admits his museum doesn’t have the cachet of his internationally famous rival, he said his wax figures can hold their own.

“I’ll compare my Hugh Hefner with their Hugh Hefner any day,” he said, pointing to his museum’s wax depiction of the Playboy founder dressed in a satin bathrobe and stretched out on a bed.

The two museums are in the same business but their origins couldn’t be more different.

Madame Tussauds is named for the famed French wax artiste who made busts for a show that traveled through Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Those shows included famous figures of the age, including the writer Voltaire, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin.

Merlin Entertainments Group, based in England, now owns the Madame Tussauds franchise and operates 13 attractions worldwide, including in London, Berlin and Shanghai. Wax luminaries such as Voltaire and Rousseau have given way to young stars such as Justin Timberlake and Beyonce.

Hollywood Wax Museum has more humble roots. Sundher’s grandfather, Spoony Singh, a former saw mill operator and amusement park creator from Canada, opened his attraction with an emphasis on celebrity rather than wax artistry.

Sundher and his three uncles now operate the museum, several other attractions and two local storage facilities. He portrays the battle of the Hollywood Boulevard wax museums as a “current-day David and Goliath story.”

“We are more kitschy but we embrace that,” he said.

But he rejects his rival’s assertion that his figures are cheap knockoffs compared with those at Madame Tussauds.

Over the last six years, Sundher said, his company has made significant investments – he wouldn’t say how much – to upgrade the museum.

He said that since 2005, every wax figure, except for the facsimile of Charlie Chaplin, has been replaced. The museum has been renovated to let guests pose for photos next to the figures, and he plans to add 20 new figures by November.

Thomas of Madame Tussauds said figures there, created by a team of professionals in London, are clearly superior. But he said surveys have shown that attraction is losing customers who assume the two museums are either the same or very similar.

“This is about our brand,” Thomas said. “We don’t want people being confused.”

Online reviews of the two attractions seem to favor Madame Tussauds. On the online consumer rating site Yelp.com, Madame Tussauds’ Hollywood location currently boasts four stars compared with 2.5 for the Hollywood Wax Museum.

One Yelp reviewer said that the Lucille Ball figure in the Hollywood Wax Museum “looks like a Meth addict,” adding that Cameron Diaz was “missing fingers” and the “wig was sliding off” the head of Mike Myers, who was dressed as film character Austin Powers.

But at the Hollywood Wax Museum this week, Shaorong Young, a tourist from Albuquerque, N.M., said he and his wife and two children were impressed by the wax replicas.

“They look very real to me,” Young said as he snapped photos of a wax Hulk Hogan, standing in a fighting ring with Sylvester Stallone from the “Rocky” movies and Jack Black from the movie “Nacho Libre.” “This is worth the money.”


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