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Tussauds' wax museum makes Hollywood debut

Comedian Joan Rivers touches a wax figure of herself while touring the new Madame Tussauds Hollywood in Los Angeles last week.
Comedian Joan Rivers touches a wax figure of herself while touring the new Madame Tussauds Hollywood in Los Angeles last week.
Dan Steinberg, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The seriously starstruck can find their favorite celebrities in cement, in wax, in lights — and occasionally in the flesh — around this Hollywood Boulevard entertainment crossroads that is now home to Madame Tussauds' newest wax museum.

The $55 million, three-story wax people palace opened Saturday next to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, steps away from Oscar's Kodak Theatre and in the path of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Michael Jackson's star is nearly at its doorstep.

The place is labeled a museum but there is nothing quiet, staid, stuffy or old about it. It is a shrine to Hollywood's elite and it comes with all the trappings — music, sound bites, high fashion, paparazzi, applause, a red carpet and Joan Rivers.

The 115 marquee A-listers at the party can't act, but guests get to interact. You can rub shoulders with the stars, embrace them, dress like them, take pictures with them, ride or sit or play with them and yes, even marvel at them.

"You can touch them, squeeze their bum, you can speak in their ear. Where's the fun in that if you can't actually touch the celebrities?" asked Drew Potton, marketing director for the museums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Hollywood is the Merlin Entertainment Group's ninth Madame Tussauds, joining Las Vegas, Washington, New York, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Berlin and London — the oldest and most popular.

Everybody asks why it took so long to get to Hollywood, said publicist Chris Bass. "If Hollywood had been around 200 years ago, we are sure it would have started here," he said.

The stars come complete with accessories: The Red Sea parts on demand beneath you in front of Charlton Heston, a shower curtain hides a cutout in a bathtub by Alfred Hitchcock, there are extra habits so you can join Whoopi Goldberg in a "Sister Act," a bicycle next to Lance Armstrong puts you both in the Tour de France, and Tom Hanks is just hanging out on a bus stop bench waiting for company.

Anyone can visit the museum, but to stay you have to have an invitation.

Professional skateboarder Tony Hawk's invitation came nearly a year ago. He'll join elite athletes Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods and Armstrong in the sports room. He was there when the figure was unveiled to a select crowd and posed side by side with his wax image.

To be asked was a huge compliment because "my vision of wax figures is legendary, iconic people," Hawk said.

Sculptors spent more than two hours taking measurements and photos of him at his home. They wanted him doing an aerial stunt called a frontside nosebone, so they put him on a rotating disc and took pictures from every angle while he froze the pose. "I never thought I would be doing that trick on the ground," he said.

Mold makers obtain the dental records for each celebrity, Potton said. Even if a star's teeth don't show, it affects the cheekbones, so they get them. And if a celebrity has a tattoo, it will be photographed and duplicated — or the appropriate body part will be sent to the tattoo artist so it can be done by the original.

Hawk doesn't know if his tattoos will show through all his protective gear, but his scars sure do, including those from stitches above both eyes, he said. Looking at photos as the sculpture progressed, he said he was shocked.

"My scars are so real, so true to life. To me they are prominent and I had never seen them that vividly before. It shows me how immaculate their measuring is," Hawk said.

Those who visit the sculpture will be able to crouch on a half pipe on the ground as Hawk appears to fly overhead.

Each Madame Tussauds is different, unique to its location, Potton said. "I have a favorite in each one. In Berlin, I love sitting on Freud's couch. In London, I love having tea with the queen."

There are only a handful of celebrities in all nine museums: President Barack Obama, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Beyonce Knowles.

The biggest figure in Madame Tussauds Hollywood is Shrek, who took 1,000 pounds of wax to make, publicist Jerry Digney said. The smallest are Alvin and fellow chipmunks Theodore and Simon (the three count as one figure).

Only one person ever refused to be waxed. "Mother Teresa told us, 'I find it very flattering, however, I'm not a celebrity. I'm looking after people, that's what I do,' " Potton said. Tussauds didn't need permission to use her likeness, but "we honored her request." The museum added a UNICEF collection box and a plaque explaining why her figure wasn't in the London museum.

In Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe is the interactive tease outside, and Obama is the official greeter inside. Since Monroe will be exposed to so much sun, she is made of silicone and fiberglass instead of wax, which might melt, Potton said.

The museum has a five-member team taking care of the figures. They are pretty durable, but accidents happen, Potton said. Arms get broken, clothes get stains, hair gets messed up. But the figures won't go missing — they are attached to the floor with spikes.

Most new celebrities added this year will be unveiled with ceremonies that put the star next to the statue, Potton said. Stylists stand by so if the celebrity has been on vacation and comes in with a killer tan, the wax will get a new, darker coat of acrylic paint. If an actor has missed some sleep and has raw, red eyes, single strands of red thread will be added to the eyes in the wax likeness.

The museum asks the public (on touch screens at the exit) to help choose the eight or nine celebrities who will be added each year, Potton said.