By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Kevin Burkett.
Rarely do New Yorkers consider Times Square iconic in their daily lives.
However, by intentionally avoiding this tourist section of Midtown, residents miss out on opportunities to revel in the presence of their most idolized icons: sitting in an office desk next to Don Draper; laughing with Marilyn Monroe; riding on a bicycle with ET.
They never age, they never disappoint, they always stay in character. Their secret? They’re wax.
Madame Tussauds’ Manhattan location stretches several stories over 42nd street. It’s a festive, insular universe where visitors can strike a pose next to a starry-eyed Dorothy Gale standing in front of Emerald City, or, a dance move amongst the full ensemble of ‘90s-era Spice Girls.
Period-specific references are written on the walls around their respective figures. For instance, behind F. Scott Fitzgerald is marked “HINDENBURG EXPLODES”, while by Frank Sinatra it reads “I Love Lucy”. The dolls themselves are meticulously detailed: Janis Joplin’s under-eye wrinkles appear deeply indented, while Tyra Banks looks more lushly radiant.
Informative “Wax Facts” placards are also posted, educating patrons on details such as how each figure contains about 10,000 individually inserted hairs, costs approximately $220,000 to create, and necessitates taking over 375 measurements of a living celebrity.
Wax museums like Madame Tussauds do foster a unique experience–but why are these places so centered on this particular ingredient?
“The reason why they choose wax is because of the translucency of the material,” Alex Tisch, owner of Kodiak Studios, tells BTR. “It mimics skin the best.”
The texture of wax is soft like skin, he adds. Sculptors add flesh-tones to a wax figure’s translucent outer layer–which is about one eighth of an inch deep–and detail it with veins or other marks.
The sculptors at Kodiak Studios in Brooklyn create a diverse array of three-dimensional museum figures. Dreamland Wax Museum in Gramado, Brazil, commissioned Kodiak for assignments like Princess Diana, Marlon Brando as the Godfather, or President Lula de Silva.
Sculpting the people, Tisch explains, involves pouring warm or hot wax into a hollow rubber mold, then letting it harden, pouring the excess wax out, possibly adding another couple coatings, then popping it out.
Regarding wax museums, Tisch chats about the sensory, thematic experience they offer, mentions defunct locations in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, and alludes to the extensive international network of Madame Tussauds. He brings up how the original Madame Tussaud rose to fame during the French Revolution, partially because she created wax head versions of decapitated royalty for exhibition. Details, displays, and descriptions of apprehensive encounters with Napoleon Bonaparte are presented at the Manhattan museum, surrounding a crafty wax version of the Madame herself.
Wax figures hold an interesting history beyond intended museum use. Centuries ago, English royalty used to have personal effigies made of wax that would stand by their gravesides and today, some lasting models are on display at the museum of Westminster Abbey in London. One such statue represents Frances Teresa Stuart, Duchess of Richmond (she died in 1702), which is juxtaposed by the actual body of her African grey parrot, who’s possibly the oldest stuffed bird in existence.
Gem Studios, also based in London, created the first-ever costume display using wax figures over 100 years ago. They’re still in business today making mannequins and other costume preservation materials. Out of all the figures that Gem Studios creates today, about 20 percent are wax, and recent projects include fashion designer Rick Owens, priest Padre Pio, and President Barack Obama.
Natasha Berridge, the company’s PR Manager, says that they are immensely proud of their heritage and “fortunate to still have access to Gem Studio’s library of original body shapes, molds, and an extensive collection of early archive material.”
While wax is expensive to use and their sculptors mainly make figures out of modern materials like fiberglass or silicone, Gem Studios will not forget their “roots in wax production” and continue “to support the artisan skills needed to provide these types of figures.”
Perhaps wax, with all its history and perseverance, is the iconic material in itself.