A Melting Pot of Past and Present

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 5, 2007

The corner of 10th and F streets NW still looks much as it has for decades, but the former Mattress Discounters there now contains a portal to another world.

Duck under the red Madame Tussauds awning, head down the stairs and you'll be in another city altogether.

Actually, you'll still be in Washington, as is revealed by the figure of an early resident, a Piscataway Indian. But this is a Washington where the living and the dead cohabit -- and are surprisingly approachable.

Thomas Jefferson sticks out his hand in greeting, and J. Edgar Hoover invites you to sit down. Of course, he's indicating that he wants to interrogate you, but not to worry: The McCarthy era is long over, and besides, Hoover is made of painted wax.

The new Madame Tussauds, the London institution's seventh location, includes the usual array of showbiz and sports idols. But this wax museum is designed primarily for people interested in history -- or for school groups enduring what's supposed to be an edifying visit to the nation's capital.

In addition to the American political celebrities whose replicas can also be found in Tussauds's other U.S. museums, in New York and Las Vegas, it contains inanimate inhabitants exclusive to the D.C. location.

There's the expected quota of Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes, but also D.C. Mayor for Life Marion Barry and Washington Post reporter and editor Bob Woodward. (Reportedly, Woodward will be joined next year by his Watergate-uncovering colleague, Carl Bernstein.) Interestingly, the Barry figure didn't rate the "scandal room,'' as Woodward's did. Woodward shares that gallery with Hoover and a curiously cleanshaven Richard Nixon, while Barry resides with Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush and Virginia native Katie Couric.

The emphasis on politics actually returns Tussauds to its roots. The Strasbourg-born madam came to prominence while crafting death masks of victims of the French Revolution. Later, she moved to London, where the first Madame Tussauds opened in 1835. The original attraction included a "chamber of horrors'' that makes today's facsimiles of Beyonc¿ and Tom Cruise seem tame.

In Madame Tussaud's day, there were few ways to convey a person's likeness. Now all sorts of electronic devices can instantaneously summon images of the famous. So the Washington museum has updated the wax-museum concept with high-tech interactive tricks. Touch screens quiz visitors, and recordings add you-are-there audio effects: Sit or stand next to Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and a pivotal moment will be painted in sound.

The newfangled stuff seems beside the point, however. The D.C. venue is one of the smaller Tussauds sites, with only 50 figures. At $25 for an adult ticket, that's 50 cents a gander at the likes of such losers as Robert E. Lee or George III.

What seems more likely to draw visitors is the whole idea of a wax museum, redolent of Victorian sideshows and 1950s horror movies.

Even though it's brand-new, D.C.'s Madame Tussauds is something of a historical artifact itself.

Madame Tussauds Washington D.C. 1025 F. St. NW Phone: 888-929-4632 Hours: Open daily 10 to 6 (will stay open later during busy periods) Prices: $25 for adults; $18 for children 12 and younger ($10 for all ages Friday and Saturday)

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