The Hollywood Wax Museum, which turned 30 last month, is the stuff of apocryphal memoriesfor many an Angeleno. "Oh yeah," says one Orange County native, an architect who now lives in Italy. "I went there in a limo on the way to the senior prom."
But times have changed in 30 years. Now restaurants resemble theme parks, and thrill rides are considered tame unless the G-force gives you a temporary face lift. The only ghosts left are those channeling Shirley MacLaine, and even Frankenstein has been revealed to suffer from nothing more than adolescent angst. The world has become more terrifying and less mysterious.
But the wax museum is still a place to get a romantic, pre-Freudian chill. The place has a sense of old-time Hollywood decadence that is soulful and deeply satisfying. Here, every day is "The Day of the Locust."
The museum was founded by one Spoony Singh, and is managed by his youngest son, Raubi, with several other Singh sons contributing to the effort. Raubi Singh remembers growing up on Hollywood Boulevard in the museum's early days.
"We used to have live scares," Singh says. "My father used to say it was a really fun date, because the girl would inevitably end up jumping into the guy's arms. It was a fun thing for us to do when we were children. We'd dress up and sit in the corner, and when people walked by we'd leap out at them." Fear of lawsuits put an end to the live scares.
Singh also remembers some of his father's flashy promotional efforts. "When skateboards first came out, we had a guy in a gorilla suit who would ride up and down the boulevard. For a while we had one of the real Munchkins from 'The Wizard of Oz,' before it was deemed politically incorrect."
The displays are constantly being updated, although part of the place's charm is the nostalgia evoked by such sights as the cast of "Bonanza," or Yul Brynner in "The King and I," or Cantinflas. The first thing one sees upon entering is Tom Selleck and the guys from "Miami Vice," but it won't be for long; they're about to yield their prime display territory to the cast of "Baywatch." History marches on.
Do celebrities like having life-sized, three-dimensional replicas of themselves groped and ogled by the general public in a dark room off Hollywood Boulevard? Some do and some don't. Ann-Margret sent her husband to approve hers because the idea of seeing it herself gave her the creeps, while actress Lucia Mendez takes an interest, coming in every few months to change her dress and fix her hair.
But the star's approval isn't necessary. "Wax figures are considered one-of-a-kind works of art," Singh says, "therefore we don't need copyrights."
The most fascinating part of the museum is not open to public view, and that's the upstairs workshop where the creative masterminds of the museum, curator Kenneth Horn and assistant curator Steven Kirk, toil in diligent obscurity amid a chaotic tumult of half-finished monsters and discarded beautiful people.
Did you ever stop to wonder what happened to Flip Wilson? Well, he's right here, sharing a shelf with his fellow comedians Dean Martin and Danny Thomas. In the dusty storage area are shelves that run floor to ceiling, lined with the heads of those who have fallen out of favor or out of fashion. A bald Farrah Fawcett grins maniacally at the ceiling, while a hairless Whoopi Goldberg bears a striking resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi.
"There's Congressman (Sonny) Bono over there," says Horn, pointing to a goofy-looking head in a straw hat. "I guess we should put a suit and tie on him now."
Down on what might be called "dictator row" are four Hitlers and a Stalin. Sandwiched between them, a long-haired John Travolta looks out of place but hopeful. "He needs one more movie," Singh says, "then he'll be back."
Most of the floor space is taken up with figures destined to someday become a new and improved Last Supper, although for now the fiberglass dummy labeled "Jesus" is wearing a face that looks suspiciously like Mr. Rogers. These generic heads and bodies are referred to as "nondescripts."
"We recycle bodies a lot," Horn adds. "Arnold Schwarzenegger downstairs used to be Rex Harrison, and Rodney Dangerfield is Sid Grauman."
Horn and Kirk don't exactly sit in a garret hunched over a bubbling vat all day, but pretty close. A box of hands is wedged under Kirk's desk, and there's a saucepan full of half-melted ears bubbling on a hot plate, while anguished wails and moans drift up through the floorboards from the Chamber of Horrors below, setting the tone for the work environment.
"We used to have an actual vat," Horn says. "But that was a long time ago, before I got here. They used to dip the bodies, but now only the head and the hands are wax, and the bodies are made of fiberglass."
The wax heads are cast from plaster molds, then sculpted and painted and set with glass eyes. Human hair is plunged into the scalps with a hot needle. Different wax artists have different techniques. Some color the wax itself, but Horn and Kirk prefer to paint the wax. "There are over 20 shades blended in this face," Horn says, pointing to a Michael Jackson figure in progress.
The requirements of the job are varied: Horn and Kirk are sculptors, makeup artists, hairstylists and tailors. Horn, who has been with the museum for 13 years, has also worked in film and television as a makeup artist.
Kirk is an actor and writer, and he sometimes moonlights as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. "In the 13 years I've been here, we've only had two unsolicited resumes come in," Horn says. "One was a janitor at Movieland (the wax museum in Buena Park), and the other was a psychotic."
It usually takes about two months to complete a figure, each of which costs between $3,000 and $10,000 to produce. On Horn's desk now is the grinning green head of Jim Carrey from "The Mask." This was a rush job to meet the video release date and was completed in one week. Horn will sew a replica of Carrey's yellow zoot suit at home. He picked up tailoring while working on film sets, and he's adamant about matching costumes exactly, even hand-painting fabric designs he can't find in stores.
Horn and Kirk have many tales, such as the time someone stole Herve Villechaize right out of the "Fantasy Island" display. The thieves also made off with the top half of Clark Gable. "We found his legs on the back stairway the next morning," Kirk says. Another time someone smuggled a gorilla head from "The Planet of the Apes" out the front door in a baby carriage.
Another in-house legend involves an unusual Christmas present. "This man from the San Diego Mafia came through," Horn says. "We had Marlon Brando as the Godfather, and he loved it, wanted one for his game room. His secretary called up and said, 'We need it in two weeks, whatever it costs.'
"So Spoony sold it to them for $5,000. They wanted me to bring it down to them, but they didn't want me to go to the house, so I met them in an alley between a Pic 'N' Save and a car dealership. This lady steps out of a black limousine. She has tight black velvet clothes on, and gold jewelry up and down. 'Did you bring it?' she asks. I lift the sheet and show her. Then some other guy comes up in another limo to bring me the check.
"Next thing we know, we hear a noise. We look up and seven police cars are in the alley with shotguns pointed at us. Once we got it all straightened out, the police wanted to know if I'd do a John Wayne for their office."
No one on the staff knows how big the dark and labyrinthine museum really is. It was never measured. Horn shrugs. "We just keep adding things, and there always seems to be more room."
The possibilities appear to be endless. It's still a fun date, even without the live scares. It's open until midnight, and if you hurry, you might get there before Tom Selleck relinquishes his abs and pecs to David Hasselhoff.