Famous Wax Museum Comes to 42nd St.

Monday, October 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — It's the tiny detail that conjures the big illusion: the half-inch scar beneath Brad Pitt's piercing blue eyes, or the half-smoked Gitane curled between Pablo Picasso's delicate fingers.

Such minutiae is a major concern at Madame Tussaud's, the venerable house of wax that brings a collection of nearly 200 replicant celebrities to a new $50 million Times Square home this week.

``It's the closest you can get to rubbing elbows with the stars,'' said Janine Scarpello, general manager of the new operation, as she stood last week amid a waxy constellation.

On the ninth floor of the 42nd Street attraction, the stars — or at least their wax dopplegangers — are out in force for a faux cocktail bash that is the museum's first stop.

Woody Allen, in baggy corduroys, sits in a corner. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki chat with Oprah Winfrey. Larry King, in trademark suspenders, compares notes with gossip queen Liz Smith.

But there are no velvet ropes here, no glass partitions to separate visitors from reticent celebrities. Guests are invited to stroke Harrison Ford's chin, to plant a big kiss on Meryl Streep.

``This is not like any wax museum you've ever seen,'' promised Andrew Tansley, executive director of the Tussaud's Group. ``It's not a place where the faces don't look right, where it's dusty with lots of cobwebs.''

The doors open to the public on Tuesday, a ``soft opening'' that precedes a Nov. 15 gala at which celebrities may mingle with their life-sized twins. Management expects 1.8 million guests annually. Tickets prices run from $12.95 to $19.95.

In the days before Tuesday's debut, the finishing touches were being applied.

Elvis Presley's shiny black locks still were held with hairpins while Katie Couric's body stood headless.

``She's getting her hair done,'' Scarpello explained.

Don't refer to the wax talent as dummies; they're known here as portraits. The secrets of creating them date back to 1778, when Marie Tussaud conjured her first wax celebrity: French writer Voltaire.

Over the ensuing 222 years, very little information about her art has become public. This is what's known:

— It takes six months to make one figure.

— Sculptors using cloth tapes and calipers take 250 precise measurements of a person's hands, body and face (The tapes don't lie; some subjects hit the Slim-Fast before posing).

— Each pair of acrylic eyes — like Pitt's baby blues — takes about 10 hours to produce.

The clothes are another fixation — the Tussaud's artists are sticklers for accurate couture. Some artists donate their clothes, while the Tussaud's staff tracks down facsimile duds for others.

When you see the wax Tony Bennett, it will sport one of the real Tony Bennett's dark blue Brioni suits. When Giuliani saw his wax double's get-up, he preferred wax Rudy's red tie to his own.

For Tansley, the opening caps more than eight years of work. When he first set eyes on the 42nd Street site, ``it was still full of drug dealers and prostitutes,'' he recalls.

The times, and Times Square, have changed. The current next-door neighbor: The New Amsterdam Theater, home of Disney's ``The Lion King.''

The Times Square attraction joins Tussaud's exhibitions already in London, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Las Vegas. Tansley said brand recognition was one reason that Tussaud's officials were confident they could enjoy the same success in Manhattan.

``In New York, we did a study that showed 56 percent of the people here recognized our name,'' he said. ``It shows that we're very well established. The idea to come in here was not something we came up with last week.''

Despite all the time, effort and attention to detail, not everybody is won over by the finished product.

``We still get, `That doesn't look at all like Mel Gibson,''' Scarpello acknowledged with a shrug. ``It's all in the eye of the beholder.''


On the Net:

Tussaud's: www.madame-tussauds.com