by Tom Savage Because I inhabit a job located nearby, I pass the New York City version of Tussaud's Wax Museum often. I never took it seriously until, one late afternoon, I saw a large photo of the Dalai Lama hanging inside near the entrance with a somewhat surprised look on his face. What could the Tibetan vehicle for Buddhist emptiness (shunyata, anatta, the illusion of identity) have found so intriguing inside this temple of celebrity lookalike slabs of almost animate death, I wondered. Less than five minutes later, I stumbled over a pothole in the middle of Sixth Avenue. My foot hurt for over a week. Thus I felt forced to remember the fact that I had seen His Holiness' smile inside a place I associated until then with the mostly African American celebrity mannequins that were put outside daily to entice tourists to enter into the wax version of fame's aura.
Several weeks later, accompanied by the assignment to write this article, a student from my poetry workshop at Encore Community Services Center named Caroline Binney who claimed to have recently visited the Madame Tussaud's located in London, I entered the place at last. Caroline brought a camera. I hadn't realized it fully until we'd spent some time in this breathing crypt but the main ritual that occurs here is photography. Tourists inevitably have themselves photographed in near intimacy with the famous. Being a cynic, I immediately suspected that the wax and artifactual nature of the celebrities soon disappear from the home-told stories about these encounters, replaced by the manufactured artifice of real life encounters with the idolized, if not idealized humans enshrined in these mostly perfect likenesses of the renowned. Often, during our trek through tinsel-Heaven, we were asked to abet the photographing of others with their favorite mummies. We usually obliged. Had Dante and Virgil been asked to perform similar services on their trip through the realms of the dead, would The Divine Comedy have been written at all? Would it actually have been funny?
The first figure I noticed was John Wayne. Then came Elvis Presley. Next to Wayne was Princess Diana. There appeared to be no names on them either of who they were or of who made them. Are they, thus, not considered statues? They aren't considered art. If they are a form of art but are not statues, what are they? Many classic statues are anonymous like ancient Asian and Mesopotamian relics of the first civilizations. Perhaps these in Tussaud's were made by a committee of persons, thus the bureaucracy of the process limits its aesthetic pretensions. Statues were originally meant to preserve memory, not fact, not actual form. While it could be argued that literal preservation was the aim of Egyptian mummies, the resemblances tend to verge on the symbolic rather than the actual, at least until one arrives at the Roman period Egyptian painted coffins where the likenesses are more exact. But these are paintings on coffins, not statues, thus the likeness stops short of the reanimation that was probably hoped for at some later date. Another element which distinguishes these things from statues is the animation in the eyes. The resemblance to life is so perfect in most of these Tussaud replicas that one believes it. One enters into the fantasy of contact. That they are perpetually silent remains the only proof that they were not whom they pretend to be. They are, in fact, manifestations of nobody. Their fame is a game. Some of them, of course, one could be glad to be rid of in real life. Who needs John Wayne's pro-Vietnam War cowboy at this late date? Would he have found himself a big Baghdaddy now?
I'm reminded that I don't really know what Princess Diana looked like up close and personal, having never seen her except on television or in the newspapers. Tussaud's Presley holds a pad and pencil, as if writing. But it's an unlined pad. A song or a silence?
Michelle Kwan and John Wayne have a dual name stele on the second floor. In back of them is a large photo of the Dalai Lama with the words "Can you spot the difference?" I'm sure he could, if he ever came here as a live person. Of course, if you stand for some time close to one of these sculpted likenesses you notice that none of them breathe. Thus the illusion pops like a balloon and one has to choose to ignore this fact in order to participate in the ritual of proximity.
In a series of photographs called "The Making of Yoko Ono" we are presented with the first of several exhibits meant to show us how these figures are produced. In one still, she looks like a Greek or French sculpture (white, no color.) Then she's shown as "herself". She was once one of the biggest egos in show business. She began as an avant-garde artist (a musician, if I remember correctly ) then, after marrying the Beatle who helped popularize Asian thought in the Western world, she became the most famous Japanese woman in the world and remained so for a long time.; About twenty years ago, she appeared at one of The Poetry Project's January 1st Marathon Benefits. All she did was take out a little purse, say "my key is in this" and throw it into the audience. Once my eyes had finished with her at Madame Tussauds, I next encountered the tasteless British comic Benny Hill. He was guarding the elevator and wore a suit of an elevator operator with the word "Biography" attached to his lapel. The only time I ever saw him on television was the first time I witnessed toilet humor on TV. Next comes Ru Paul, larger than life, at the top of a large water fountain. These are followed in very quick succession by the local TV weatherman Al Roker, two other local TV personalities and George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner, looking younger than he probably ever did in real life.
I found the pairings of people interesting throughout this "museum", although I'm no expert on popular culture. Christopher Reeve is paired with Bette Midler: one generous woman (she saved many community gardens in New York City a few years ago) with Superman reduced to being a basket case? Lou Reed with Lenny Kravitz (who is the latter of these?) Brad Pitt with Cybil Shepherd. Brad Pitt, one of Hollywood's cuter men of the moment, looks almost animate but not quite. Cybil Shepherd looks like she had a face lift. Did she? Tony Bennett, the last major living singer of his kind of popular song, looks steely but pretty good. Meryl Streep looks shorter and younger than she appears on screen. Camera angles versus wax? Julia Roberts looks shrunken, too. Jennifer Lopez, about whom I know almost nothing, was having her photo taken with and by a living, middle aged Hispanic man. Of all of them, Morgan Freeman looks the most real, so far. Ivana Trump looks forgotten. Jean Paul Gaulthier? Madonna's clothing designer. No wonder I didn't know who he is. A supermodel I never heard of is called "one of the most beautiful women in the world" by the information which accompanies her. Paging Arletty, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. All too old for this place? Except for Wayne and Presley, all have been current personalities so far on this floor called "Opening Night Party." But is it just an assembly of rich, powerful, new aristocrats worthy of some new version of Jean Renoir's great film "Regle De Jeu" (Rules of the Game)? My student Caroline photographs me with my arm around Tony Bennett. There is only one near-anonymous statue here called simply "Michael". He is dressed like an employee. When asked, another employee, a live one this time, tells me he works in the London Tussaud's. Sounds like a "line" but who knows?
In a separate room, we find Madame Tussaud herself encased. I became dizzy, not out of respect. Some kind of tunnel effect got me.There is also a display here of Ms. Tussaud showing Benjamin Franklin his head. This reminds me of a moment at the end of Shakespeare's Cymbeline where a detached head is thrown across the stage. The Winter's Tale also comes to mind, in which Hermione, the dead queen, reappears as a statue of herself. This statue comes to life at the end of the play and proves to have been the undead queen all along. We move on to some propaganda for the old order. There are decapitated heads of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and a still active guillotine executing somebody. No word is presented on why these events occurred or that they actually led to social advances in Europe partially spread by Napoleon, also something of a tyrant. Now I know why this place is called a museum. At their least effective, these figurines look like the animatronic statues found in Atlantic City casinos except that they don't move in Tussaud's land. Napoleon sat for a Tussaud likeness of himself, presumably in Paris. In another room of "historical figures", New York's current Governor Pataki looks young and happy. I doubt that this has ever happened, except possibly on the day he was first elected. Ex-Mayor Giuliani looks dead. Has 9/11 come back to haunt his exploitation of it? Sitting Bull is standing. Lincoln sits down. Helen Keller sits. Billy Graham looks shrunken. Has his nonexistent God left his body? Why is he larger than Martin Luther King? JFK looks almost adolescent. Maya Angelou is the only poet so far. (This reminds me of the prevalence of African-American figurines both inside and outside this place. Displayed outside the building itself, I have most often seen either Whoopi Goldberg or Samuel L. Jackson.) Annie Leibovitz, the photographer, is frozen holding a camera pointed at Maya Angelou. Dorothy Parker, the second and last poet in the whole place, is seated with F. Scott Fitzgerald on the same settee or sofa. After Quentin Crisp, I find Salvador Dali, the first painter here, with a parrot on his shoulder. Because I met him briefly at a show of his art many years ago, I have a photo taken of me with him. As is the case now, I owned no camera then. We next find Picasso paired with Hemingway. Apparently people really pose for these figures, at least for awhile. Some must be from photos, however.
At last, we encounter the figurine of the figure who drew me into this place: the Dalai Lama. Since I had a short audience with His Holiness thirty years ago at the end of my three year stay in India, I have Caroline take a photo of me with him also. Except for Tony Bennett, I restrict my indulgence in the communal photographic game to people whom I have actually met but have no record of meeting.
There is a very good, lifelike one of Arafat, positioned next to Castro in the same corner with Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller.
Gandhi also looks good, i.e. believable. But I prefer the statue of him in Union Square. At a low point in my life, I used to circle that statue once in awhile in some hope that things might change for the better. Franklin Delano Roosevelt looks more real from the left side than from the right. Does that mean something? According to Caroline, there's more hair on Einstein in New York's rendering of him than in the London one.
The vast majority of these figures are from American popular culture. Boris Karloff is the only one shown twice, I believe, once as The Mummy and once as Frankenstein's clone. For some reason, his impersonation of the mummy is placed next to Josephine Baker, the great black American singer and dancer who lived most of her life in France. There is a really good one of Leonard Bernstein, the only classical musician in the whole place. Billie Holliday meets Duke Ellington. Did she ever sing with him? Marilyn Monroe is paired with James Dean. Dean doesn't look like himself at all. Among groups, the astronauts and the Beatles were expected. The Beatles look cheesy. They're caught in their early phase rather than in their later, more sophisticated phases. There is one likeness which a museumgoer would say looks like a statue of someone. It's of Jim Morrison and is all black. Why Morrison is accorded this weird, aesthetic distance from mannequinhood is anybody's guess.
The last figure we encounter is Woody Allen. Oddly enough, he's sitting at a table in the cafeteria meant for visitors. Since I've met him once or twice in New York City, Caroline and I sat at the table with him. My companion discovers she has run out of film in her camera. While I sat next to Allen, a Japanese tourist came up to us and touched me on the head to see if I was a mannequin or a real person. From a Buddhist perspective, I both exist and don't. Thus I was not really sure what to say to the man who did this.
Which matters more, the mental image we have to celebrities or what they actually look like to uncredited artists? Are the latter just employees who, like most, are deprived of public credit for what they do in return for a needed wage? When you look at a Michelangelo or a Rodin, you know who did it. Picasso's likeness here is relevant because, although quite well done, it is as anonymous as are all the others. Picasso's own African-mask-influenced sculptures were never anonymous, unlike the sources of his inspiration.
Madame Tussaud's is a museum of the present and (mostly) recent past. It could be an educational experience for some perhaps very young people who don't know who some of these personalities were or are. Put Gandhi and Jennifer Lopez in the same building. Does the equation lead to Einstein? Oddly, here it does.