Madame Tussauds Waxes Political

Posted May 15, 2009 at 3:44pm

So your invitation to the White House Correspondents Dinner got lost in the mail, and you were stuck in the “purple tunnel of doom— on Inauguration Day. No worries: You can still get your photo taken with Barack and Michelle. In fact, if you’d like to tell Katie Couric about the experience, you can do that, too.

Madame Tussauds, situated at the corner of 10th and F streets Northwest, offers visitors a chance to hobnob with the famous and the famous-for-D.C.

The museum opened in October 2007. It was the seventh Madame Tussauds to open; another has opened in Berlin since then, and the ninth is scheduled to open in Hollywood in August. It is just the second wax museum in this area. The first, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, introduces visitors to African-American role models.

Anywhere from 250 to nearly 2,000 visitors per day stop at Madame Tussauds, and the museum is open every day of the year, according to Lisa McClure, senior marketing and trade sales manager at the museum.

Madame Tussauds is taking every opportunity to expand its fan base in the nation’s capital, using discounts, promotions and a glittering array of tricks and surprises in the exhibit to keep residents bringing their friends and relatives back. Even though the wax figures in Washington, D.C., are immobile (the museum famously created a breathing Britney Spears, but she doesn’t appear here in D.C.), the museum’s exhibits are surprisingly interactive. Sound effects, accessories and set pieces give visitors the illusion that they’re a part of the history the individual made.

“I think Washingtonians are very astute, very well-educated people that are so used to different types of attractions in Washington, D.C., and I believe this fulfills a little void because we have wax figures that are lifelike but don’t talk back to you,— she said. “I think it’s a great addition to the Penn Quarter. [It’s a] natural fit, for instance, with Ford’s Theatre, because we have a lifelike Lincoln.—

Visitors are even encouraged to touch their heroes. They can stand over President Richard Nixon and listen to him give his resignation speech or sit next to Rosa Parks on bus seats. Hats and jackets are available for women who would like to be properly attired when they meet former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis. A golfer who sinks a putt on Tiger Woods’ green gets applause, as does an audience member who stands up after sitting next to President Abraham Lincoln in a replica of the box at Ford’s Theatre.

The museum is home to about 80 wax figures at any given time, all built at the Tussauds Studio in London at a cost of about $200,000 each. Each living celebrity is first measured in more than 200 ways using calipers. They can choose their own pupils from a box of eyes, and they match their hair color, as well. The figure takes three to six months to build and later gets regular maintenance on site, including touch-ups to hair and makeup.

Unique in this museum’s collection are some local favorites. Former mayor and current D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry posed with his figure when the museum opened. Wizards star Gilbert Arenas took his place next to his wax likeness, too, when it was revealed just before Thanksgiving 2008. McClure said that unlike other celebrities immortalized in wax, the basketball standout checked for the accuracy of the statue’s tattoos before taking a close look at its face.

The museum expects to debut a couple new figures each year. Its newest figure, first lady Michelle Obama, was unveiled to great fanfare on April 7. She stands next to her husband, and a photographer is on hand to take professional photos of visitors with the first couple. (In connection with her unveiling, the museum posted a survey online asking which Republican first lady voters would like to see added to the collection. As of last week, Laura Bush had the highest tally.)

To the left of the Obamas is a replica of the Oval Office, where guests can imagine their own presidency. To their right is a figure of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, waving to an imaginary crowd as she stands alone. Normally her husband, Bill, would be beside her, but the 42nd president was loaned to the U.S. Travel Association for an event they had last week.

In fact, in an effort to promote Madame Tussauds, the museum has loaned a number of figures out to events and institutions around Washington, D.C. For example, four figures will help promote the new movie “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.— Actor Robin Williams and President Theodore Roosevelt are at the National Museum of Natural History and Lincoln and pilot Amelia Earhart are at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for the summer. One of the two J. Edgar Hoover figures in the museum’s collection has been at the Newseum since March 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of the FBI.

In addition to loaning out figures, the museum uses a variety of discounts to lure people in. Anyone with ticket stubs from the nearby Museum of Crime & Punishment and International Spy Museum gets a $5 discount at Madame Tussauds. There is a student discount and another for police officers, as well as one for area residents. The total ticket cost is $18 for adults, $12 for children ages 4 to 12 or $15 for seniors over 60.

The museum also allows groups to rent the space for private parties after-hours. McClure said seven groups took advantage of that opportunity in April.

As visitors leave the exhibit, they can take a survey answering questions about their time at the museum. One of the questions asks: Who is missing? Most visitors have a similar answer, according to McClure.

“Interestingly enough, if they’re asked who they’d like to see in the future, more than not they say me,’— she said.