Bright lights, big critics for wax museum plan

Times Staff Writer

Can Hollywood be too ... Hollywood?

Madame Tussauds, the legendary London wax museum, proposes to build a flashy $55-million branch in Hollywood -- its first on the West Coast -- on a parking lot next to historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

However, the two-century-old entertainment company that invented the “Chamber of Horrors” may not be the most welcome addition to the neighborhood. As millions of investment dollars continue to pour into Hollywood real estate, tensions have surfaced as stakeholders try to balance the big-city glitz that makes Hollywood special with the main-street services that locals like to patronize.

Madame Tussauds, for instance, has been met with trepidation by some nearby landlords and homeowners who were hoping for something a little less touristy. Besides, the Hollywood Wax Museum has been operating barely a block away for decades.

“We welcome a development” replacing the parking lot, said landlord Shaul Kuba of CIM Group. “But if it was a high-end fashion store we might be more excited.”

CIM owns several Hollywood properties, including the Hollywood & Highland retail and entertainment center, a failure under its previous owners in part because the original stores appealed primarily to tourists.


Grauman’s, which is sandwiched between Hollywood & Highland and the Tussauds site, is one of the region’s top attractions. Thousands of annual visitors feel compelled to step into movie stars’ footprints frozen in concrete in its courtyard, and many business operators would pay dearly to be its neighbor.

“It’s like a force field,” said economist Jack Kyser at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

“Los Angeles is a key market we have been looking at for six to seven years, and the epicenter is Hollywood,” said Rob Roger, chief financial officer of Tussauds Group, the owner of the museum chain. “We have been trying to identify the right site, and we are delighted to move forward with it.”

Roger and other Tussauds executives were in town Wednesday to drum up support for their project and show off recently released drawings of it.

Tussauds Group grosses $2 billion a year serving 40 million customers at its museums, theme parks and other attractions, he said.

In Hollywood, the London-based company envisions a $25-million building in scale with Grauman’s, with two levels of underground parking.

Unlike most new buildings, it would cost more to furnish than to build. Tussauds expects to spend an additional $30 million fitting the museum with life-size wax “portraits” of the famous, set in interactive exhibits that will allow visitors to, for example, shoot a basketball with “Shaq” or ride a racing bike next to “Lance.”

The museum site is zoned for a large retail development, but builders must still submit an environmental impact report to the city. Tussauds will lease the property from parking lot owner Steve Ullman for an undisclosed price.

If the city approves the project, Tussauds would start work next year and complete the museum by late 2008.

To encourage return visits and generate local interest, Tussauds plans to partner with movie studios and spend about $1 million a year to create temporary exhibits connected to current theatrical releases. Celebrities would show up to unveil their wax images.

“We don’t want it to get stale,” museum representative Nikki Nolan said.

To address neighborhood concerns that Tussauds might overshadow Grauman’s, the height of the museum designed by Los Angeles architect Michael Rotondi was lowered to more closely match the roof line of the theater.

The changes haven’t mollified preservationist Robert Nudelman, who says the glassy design “looks like an Irvine medical center” and should be resurfaced to become more compatible with Grauman’s and other historic buildings in the area.

Malcolm McNeil, vice president of the Hollywood Heights Assn., a nearby homeowner group, says residents feel burned by previous developments that paid little attention to their interests. They’re worried about projects “that look shiny for a few years” and then grow dated and underused, he said.

“I want to see more businesses that are consumer businesses as opposed to tourist businesses,” McNeil said.

The challenge for planners is to financially capitalize on international recognition of Hollywood as a brand while keeping the district a livable neighborhood, he said. “It’s a balance.”

Hollywood’s darker recent past is still fresh in the mind of Bob Eicholz, vice president of Efilm, a local business that digitally upgrades the visual quality of films.

“Seven years ago I was afraid to walk down Hollywood Boulevard, and now I walk my dog every night,” he said. “It’s great that a company like Tussauds has the confidence to invest in the Hollywood market. When I have friends come to visit me, it’s one additional fun place they can go.”