There are many places in D.C. to commune with statues of great U.S. presidents, but there is only one spot where you can see all of the mediocre ones too: Madame Tussauds (punctuationally challenged) wax museum (1001 F St. NW).
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I visited Madame Tussauds to see who actually pays upward of $20 ($15.50 with the locals’ discount) to visit this uncanny valley of presidents and celebrities. The answer: mostly just me.
I spent 20 minutes alone and increasingly scared in the Hall of Presidents, a series of rooms containing wax figures of all 43 commanders in chief. These unnervingly lifelike figures stare thoughtfully into the middle distance, gesturing randomly, not unlike real politicians.
I breathed a sigh of relief when some other tourists arrived: a family from Houston, who watched a brief video about the history of the museum featuring actors with indecipherable cockney accents and then joined me in the Hall of Presidents.
The family started to pose with George Washington in his rowboat, but they were briefly baffled by a sign inviting them to don Colonial garb first.
“Where are the costumes?” said the mom.
“Maybe we’re supposed to bring our own,” her son replied.
They snapped pictures with Washington anyway and, boy, were they thorough, capturing every possible permutation of people: mom, dad and daughter; mom, daughter and son; and so forth. They repeated this series with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. I was going to offer to take a picture of them all together until it became clear they were going to pose with every single president. They’re probably still down there, subsisting on gift-shop candy and sleeping under Herbert Hoover’s desk.
There were a few other historical figures sprinkled in among the presidents, including Rosa Parks, whom you can join on her bus seat. When I did, a disembodied voice commanded me to move. This happens regardless of your race, making it seem like Parks’ great act of civil disobedience was to ignore a bus driver who wanted everyone to move back, perhaps to make room for people boarding.
Near Richard Nixon, I found a young Bob Woodward looking intently at a computer screen displaying a front page about Watergate. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the masthead of that paper read not “Washington Post,” but “Washington Express.” I was so proud: This very paper was breaking major stories before it existed, not to mention using computers in the newsroom. Express was truly ahead of its time.
I sat down at the computer and answered a series of multiple-choice questions about the Watergate break-in. Not to brag, but I did it with 100 percent accuracy in just 30 seconds, well under the three-minute time limit. “Sorry, you’ve missed the deadline,” the computer said. So I did it even faster. Again, the computer said I had failed.
I don’t know what it was like in the ’70s, but this seems to be a fairly good simulation of being a journalist today. No matter how quickly you file your Pulitzer-worthy story, you’ll end up getting scooped by a BuzzFeed listicle.
After the Hall of Presidents, there are a few rooms devoted to celebrities, and they proved to be a little less lonely. When I got there, a large tour group from China was taking pictures with Bollywood stars. They also took photos with Michael Jackson and Taylor Swift, but didn’t even glance at Zac Efron, who was sitting by himself on a bench.
He looked forlorn, so I joined him, and together we watched tourists take pictures with Beyonce and Angelina Jolie, but never us. Finally, a young woman stopped and fished in her purse for her cellphone. Our hearts swelled with hope.
“Is that Justin Bieber?” she asked.
“No, it’s Zac Efron,” I replied. “I think he’s an actor?”
She put her phone away and moved on without a word.
In all, I spent three hours in Madame Tussauds, which is about three hours more than I would recommend. I went in expecting a sleek, silly tourist trap and found a run-down, creepy tourist trap instead — one with missing costumes, B-list celebs and broken exhibits.
I did, however, locate one working computer — a touch-screen that invites visitors to vote in a mock election for U.S. president. As of last week, Donald Trump was in the lead, six points ahead of Beyonce and 11 points ahead of Hillary Clinton. Since Tussauds already has a wax Beyonce and a Hillary Clinton, I hope that they’ll consider adding Trump to their collection regardless of how the election goes. I bet they can even get Mexico to pay for it.
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