At Madame Tussauds, The Wooden in Wax

A likeness of Ella Fitzgerald, or someone who resembles her a bit, welcomes visitors to the Music Room at Madame Tussauds.
A likeness of Ella Fitzgerald, or someone who resembles her a bit, welcomes visitors to the Music Room at Madame Tussauds. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

When we got really bored, like on rainy days at the beach, my sister and I used to play a game with our dog, Colie.

Play dead.

Not Colie playing dead, us playing dead.

We'd lie down and not move, not blink. Colie got spooked. A lot of dogs get spooked by this. She'd whine, bump us with her nose, we'd lie there. She couldn't figure it out, as if she were looking at a ghost. She'd back away, and bark, lots of barking.

Poor Colie. We'd walk her down to the ice cream place and buy her a cone.

The point here is that the 50 figures in Madame Tussauds wax museum, which opens its seventh worldwide branch today at 10th and F streets NW, make me want to bark.

Of course they're not playing dead, they're playing alive. No matter. There's something creepy about them; liminal, as anthropologists would say -- on the threshold between dead and alive, statue and ghost, art and trick. Maybe this is why some people go to wax museums: to get creeped out in the presence of the undead, or the non-alive. Others of course, will pay their $25 ($18 for children, $23 for seniors) simply to have their pictures taken with their arms around Bill Clinton, who smiles as if he's just made you like him after weeks of trying and now he doesn't have to think about you at all anymore.

Yes, go ahead and touch him. Shake hands with Thomas Jefferson, who has a weird brightness about him, as if he'd taken 250 micrograms of acid an hour ago and can't wait to explain the universe to you. There were other sides to Jefferson, but most of them aren't here. He lacks gravitas. He lacks seriousness, force, threat, allure, aura, charisma, the usual complement of human vibes. No chi, no prana, no life force, no animal magnetism and none of this lack is redeemed by art or some kind of optical illusion or magical sleight of mind. So shake Tom's hand, pump your own vibes into him.

Interact! Hit a putt on the green where Tiger Woods squats with otherworldly abstraction. Give Jennifer Lopez a pat, or Beyoncé. Not a few visitors have checked out Brad Pitt's tushie.

"People think of us as a collection of roped-off figures, but we're not," says Paul Williams, creative director of the Tussauds Studio in London, and a man who pronounces the name as Too-SAWDS, perhaps with the British attitude that it's perfectly fine to speak French, but you don't have to speak it the way they do.

"We want you to touch them, touch their clothes, touch their skin. It's not a museum, it's not worthy like that. We try to keep people entertained. We try to make it fun. Sometimes an ear gets broken off, but we have a maintenance crew to repair it."

Being Americans, with our cultural inferiority complex, we want to think of this as a museum, a venerable institution deriving from Madame Tussaud, who scurried around at the foot of the guillotine collecting heads and making wax impressions of those sacrificed to the good of the French Revolution. (Soon, she went to England and never returned, a sharp-faced and practical woman, one senses from the wax bust of her.)

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