Heralded by Sound and Light, Madame Tussaud's Faux Famous Figures Arrive in Times Square

The latest sign of the transformation that has overcome New York's Times Square is the arrival of Madame Tussaud's, of wax celebrity and statesperson fame. Here, one can mingle and pretend to hobnob with everyone from Brad Pitt to Al Roker to Marie Antoinette. As long as patrons can restrain themselves around the aforementioned Mr. Pitt, the experience is fun in the comfortably G-for-Giuliani-rated realm. At $19.95 a pop ($15.95 for children), admission prices may be steep, but they're certainly cheaper than tickets to The Lion King, which resides next door. And The Lion King doesn't feature the friendly spectacle of two — count ’em — Whoopi Goldbergs.

All kidding aside, Madame Tussaud's New York is a major undertaking: a $50 million project, years in the making, which takes up about 85,000 sq. ft. of a new 42nd Street building, and which includes around 200 wax figures. It's one of those massive projects contributed to by scores of companies and individuals, and rather difficult for even the participants to sort out. But one thing is clear — despite all of the architectural and interior design, lighting, sound, and complex systems that went into the project, it's still about the figures. Or, in the official terminology of Tussaud's, the portraits.

“The portraiture comes first, and the surroundings have to come second,” says Caroline Elliott, creative director on the project for Tussaud's Studios in London. “I think people are fascinated with wax, and given the quality of our work, the portraits don't fail to meet expectations. Trying to create an environment that works together with the portraits is probably the biggest challenge, because you don't want the environment to upstage what everyone's coming to see; you need them to seamlessly, inextricably match. The best environment is one that the audience steps into and becomes lost.”

Yet first you have to find a space to create these environments, which was no small task. “The idea to bring Madame Tussaud's to New York has been alive since about 1979, linked to the 42nd Street regeneration program,” says Simon Opie, director of Tussaud's Studios and London-based project director on the New York facility. The process accelerated during the 90s, until a site was chosen about three years ago. Key players over the years included developer Forest City Ratner, architects Ian McGonigal of Architecture IMG and Deborah Fantera of Ohlausen DuBois, and building construction manager Sciame.

The October 2000 opening did not mark Madame Tussaud's American debut, however. That would be Madame Tussaud's Las Vegas, which opened at the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino in 1999. The Tussaud's Group is not just a wax museum developer; the organization operates such varied attractions as the London Planetarium, Warwick Castle, English theme parks, as well as wax establishments in Amsterdam and Hong Kong. The Tussaud's (on English tongues, rhymes with Maude's) Studios is design central for the corporation; here, figures are modeled and environmental concepts are created. To develop the New York space, Opie and Elliott worked with a team of four staff designers — Graham Cooke, Nigel Woods, Mike Roberts, and costume designer Mette Udsholt. Eventually, lighting designers Mark Henderson and Stephen Wentworth, and John Leonard of Aura Sound Design, were brought in on a freelance basis, and worked on this side of the pond with Production Arts, Fourth Phase, Signal Perfection, Ltd., and other PRG companies.

The first step, says Opie, was to determine what Americans would like to see. “We developed a number of different concepts and we did some fairly extensive market testing with them,” he says. “From that, we refined the ideas that were finally developed for the site. By the time the building was identified, we had a pretty good idea of how much square footage was needed, and we'd worked through a vast number of alternative concepts to a pretty good idea of our strongest contenders.”

“Early on, we talked to a lot of American designers, because we wanted to create an exhibition that was right for the American market,” says Elliott, whose design career with the Studios goes back 15 years. “We took a lot of advice. I suppose in England, where Tussaud's has been going for almost 200 years, we're rather more traditional in our approach. Tussaud's in England is very famous for its grand hall, for instance, which could never be copied anywhere else in the world because it's such a huge space, with lots of portraits in it. We didn't want to try to copy that approach; we didn't want it to be like just a franchise in another country. It needed to be designed for the place it was going, and for the people.”

What the designer arrived at was more or less five distinct areas. After leaving the lobby, where they're greeted by the first Whoopi figure, guests are whisked by elevator up 10 flights to the top floor, and enter The Opening Night Party. This celebrity-studded nighttime fete is being held in an Italian Baroque — style garden setting, complete with cherubs, and with RuPaul splashing in a centerpiece fountain. The unexpected thing here is the lack of barrier between visitors and figures; you're invited to walk right up and touch Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Yoko Ono, Larry King, Oprah, the second Whoopi, and Mayor Giuliani himself. The emphasis, naturally, is on American and, specifically, New York figures. “We needed to have an area where a group of portraits, the A-list I suppose, could come together,” Elliott says. “A party environment, where you're not putting them behind ropes, is a great way of doing that.”

Why an Italian baroque theme? “It's completely different from anything you would expect coming in off of 42nd Street,” says the creative director. “It's fairly tongue-in-cheek. I mean, the whole idea of Madame Tussaud's is pretty kitsch. But kitsch is fashionable, and it's fun to go along with it and enjoy the joke. That's why I wanted to do something fairly flamboyant and camp, and why RuPaul is in the middle of the fountain. It could have been an Ian Schrager-ish architectural space similar to the lobby, but you see that everywhere in New York. That might have been more real, but it being Madame Tussaud's, we went for something more theatrical and fun.”

Leaving the party, one enters a hall of mirrors, which provides an introduction to Madame Tussaud's Story. And quite a story it is. Briefly, Marie Tussaud, née Grosholtz, was born in 1761 and rose to prominence as a wax modeler just prior to the French Revolution. At one point, Marie was forced to make death masks from the decapitated heads of King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, among others. One area — into which children or the faint of heart are warned not to venture — demonstrates a beheading, while another provides a creepy tableau of the graveyard where Marie searches through corpses to recover prominent heads. After fleeing to England in 1802, Mme. Tussaud toured the country with her collection, establishing a permanent museum only in 1835. She died in 1850, leaving her collection in the care of her family, which constructed the current Baker Street building in 1884.

The informational portion of the tour continues with Behind the Scenes, where the work-in-progress portrait of Al Roker is used to let visitors in on the really remarkable sculpting and modeling work done by Tussaud's Studios. Here, one learns that more than 250 precise measurements and photographs of a subject are taken (if, that is, said subject agrees to a sitting; the figures of those who don't are apparent); that a clay portrait is molded in plaster, and only the head is cast in wax, while the body is cast in fiberglass; and that the six — month creation of a portrait includes painstaking hours spent inserting each individual hair and sewing red silk thread into eyes to suggest veins. Everyone from a subject's dentist (for teeth moldings) to tailor can get in on the process. For Madame Tussaud's New York, the head of portraits was Judy Craig, with Sue Day in charge of hair and coloring.

The last stop on the 10th floor is The Gallery, a more traditional display that mixes portraits of Presidents past and present (poor Al Gore being consigned to storage in favor of George W., natch), world leaders ranging from the Dalai Lama to Fidel Castro, and such high achievers as Albert Einstein, Louis Armstrong, Picasso, Hemingway, and Annie Leibovitz. The setting here provides, in Elliott's words, a “slightly surreal feel,” placing marbled and columned colonial-style architecture against a cloudy blue sky. “It's both an exterior and interior,” she says. “Madame Tussaud's plays with tricking the eye, with what's real and what's not, so I took that as a theme.”

An interactive multimedia section sponsored by A&E's Biography and designed, fabricated, and installed by Scharff Weisberg, includes a videowall, three Internet browser stations, and a video replay kiosk. The videowall shows a promo piece for Biography that blends imagery and sound; it consists of 16 standard 29" monitors plus an Electrosonic Vector video processor running C-Through for Windows software. According to Scharff Weisberg president Josh Weisberg, the processor provides “excellent image quality and allows the control of four video sources. As an additional safeguard against less-than-desirable image quality, Fast Forward Omega decks were specified rather than the typical DVD format.” Bill Kneissel served as project manager for Scharff Weisberg.

The Biography section leads down a spiral staircase into the exhibition's big showpiece — Popular Culture. This meandering timeline starts in the 1920s, and through a series of pods provides glimpses of each succeeding decade with the aid of evocative sounds and lighting, graphics, and, of course, pertinent cultural, political, and sports-world figures from each period — Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth, Glenn Miller and Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Jackie Robinson, Elvis, Lucille Ball, and Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles and Muhammad Ali, Richard Nixon, Tina Turner, and Michael Jordan.

In terms of space design, Elliott says, “We took a few risks in the Popular Culture area; it's fairly abstract. Rather than trying to create many decades through interior spaces, which wouldn't have been very imaginative, we felt it was important to tell a story with the people, the music, and the graphics. As long as the portraits are really good, you get a strong sense of each of the decades.” This is one area in which the designers felt portraits could be placed on podiums or otherwise separated from visitors, “because it creates height in the space and gives it a more abstract feel.” It also helps protects certain fragile elements from prying hands. “We could put Madonna up high, since she's one of the people who gets grabbed a lot, especially with her wearing Gaultier.”

A key piece of designing any museum or themed attraction is creating proper flow of patrons. “We had to get 1,200 people an hour through this building,” says Elliott. “You have to create a route that people don't realize they're taking, but which gets everybody in the same place at the end. In Popular Culture, it's a series of pools of light and sound.” It was here, therefore, that the talents of sound designer John Leonard and lighting designer Stephen Wentworth really took over. Neither were originally slated to work on this portion of the attraction, but over the two to three years that intensive design was taking place on Madame Tussaud's New York, people and ideas tended to fall by the wayside.

Elliott shared her scale models, complete with 1:100 models of the figures, with Leonard and Wentworth, who started from there. Leonard designed sound for the entire museum, with the exception of “It Happened in New York,” a computer-generated film presentation, created by Evans & Sutherland, which ends the tour. “Caroline told me, ‘These are some of the sounds that we want to incorporate, and we need music.’ I asked, ‘Can we afford a composer?’ and they said yes, so I got a good friend of mine, Colin Towns, who can write anything. The jazz that you hear in Opening Night Party is Colin, the French Revolution music you hear is Colin, the nice ambient stuff you hear in The Gallery is Colin.”

But in Popular Culture, Leonard had to come up with a series of sound collages to go with each decade. “I did a demo for them of the 60s,” he says, “and they said it was far too long at three minutes, so I cut it down to two. Then I scripted every area, found the music, found the sound effects, and put it all together. There were things we had to have” — such as certain music tracks and indispensable elements like Neil Armstrong's moonwalking “giant step for mankind” words. “Other than that, I had pretty much free rein to choose out of anybody's catalog that I wanted to use. The exception was Bob Dylan, whose people wanted some obscene amount of money. So I had to find a track that Dylan sang, but that he hadn't written.”

The crucial piece of equipment Leonard used was Richmond Sound Design's AudioBox™, which features either eight — or 16 — track audio playback, a 16 × 16 matrix, and built-in delay, equalization, and programmable input, output, and crosspoint fades. While four 8 — track AudioBoxes cover the 10th floor, four 16 — track units are used just for Popular Culture, affording several capabilities. “Each sound you hear in every section of the AudioBox is a separate cue,” says Leonard, who used DigiDesign's ProTools editing software to create the tracks. “The exhibition is not static, it changes. In order to change the music for one figure, you can simply load another piece of music in, program the show control, and it's done in about 10 minutes.” This is exactly what happened when, at the last minute, Cher was moved from The Opening Night Party into the 90s pod of Popular Culture. “I rushed out, bought a copy of ‘Believe,’ and popped it in,” says the sound designer. Aura show programmer Scott George helped facilitate the process.

Since the AudioBox runs on separate cues, it also got the exhibition over some copyright hurdles. “We were told that we could not do a two — track mix, because then we would be creating a new piece of music using other people's music,” says Leonard. “So we just did everything separately. Obviously, they paid standard music playback charges, as everybody does.”

Additional audio equipment includes a wide range of JBL Control speakers, QSC CS Series amplifiers, a Yamaha SPX-1000 reverb/echo unit, Richmond's ABEdit software, and even a smattering of Countryman and Shure microphones. The Audioboxes are triggered by an Alcorn-McBride show controller, and in certain sections, send MIDI commands to the ETC Expression lighting controllers, synching up with High End Systems Color Pros® and Power Scan™ 250MRs used in the 80s and 90s pods, for example.

Wentworth, who has worked on many Tussaud's projects, approached Popular Culture by using a different palette on each decade. “I start in sepia in the 1920s, and when we come to the Second World War, it's more black and white, or actually blue and white,” he says. “When you get to the 50s, it's quite bright and almost fluorescent-type lighting in places, with lots of greens and yellows.” The 60s moves into a more psychedelic look, complete with moving oil light, while the 70s is illuminated by a twirling, mirrored disco ball. In the 80s, moving lights are introduced, and the 90s, according to Wentworth, just “takes the 80s one step further.” Still to be developed is the 21st century.

The designer's lighting package in Popular Culture, divided into individual grids over each pod, is largely made up of many dimmable, UL-listed Thomas Birdies, plus some Selecon low-voltage profile spots, and PAR-36 spots for recent decades. “The beauty of the Birdie is that you can put an 8° lamp in it and get quite a nice beam, or you can put a 60° lamp in it, so it becomes almost a flood,” he says. Such flexibility is important when changes are continually occurring, and when you're lighting both environments and figures, particularly of the wax variety.

“It took me a long time to learn how to light wax figures to their satisfaction,” says Wentworth of Tussaud's. “A) Wax can't take a lot of light, or it starts looking like wax, and B) You can't put color on the faces — wax doesn't react like skin does, it just looks like colored wax. If you're doing the Spice Girls, you want to put some color in, but you have to use it for backlight; you can't just slap red on the faces.” (Elliott says the use of color is similarly important in scenic backgrounds to wax portraits — blue is good, yellow is bad.) “Also,” Wentworth continues, “half the people at Tussaud's — the sculptors — want portrait lighting, and the other half want theatrical lighting. So you've got to balance that.”

Wentworth was also responsible for Madame Tussaud's Story, where the graveyard scene was more clearly a theatrical challenge. That was lit from 6' pipes containing two ETC Source Fours and three Birdies. Source Fours are the primary fixtures in The Opening Night Party, which, along with The Gallery, was lit by Mark Henderson. “The lighting grid in there is relatively high,” says Henderson of The Opening Night Party. “I wanted to use units that could focus tightly around each figure, leaving everything else relatively dark, for a nighttime feel.” Strings of pea-lights are draped around the room, to distract the eye from the open grid in the ceiling.

Henderson was planning to employ a similar setup with a high grid and Source Fours in The Gallery. But budgetary concerns nixed that scheme in favor of dropped-down Selecon track-mounted profile spots. “Caroline wanted that to be a brighter, more open area, so it wasn't such a problem dropping it all down,” says Henderson. “Each figure is individually lit, but not quite as tight as it would have been with the Source Fours.” The blue-sky surround is lit by Source Four PARs from a grid in the ceiling.

Especially in The Opening Night Party, Henderson employs a moody lighting style that's closer to the theatrical projects for which he's better known. “Mark tends to hit the figures with one or two lanterns,” says Wentworth. “He'll spend his money on Source Fours to do that, whereas I always put four lanterns on each figure. When you're just working on paper before the exhibition opens, you have no idea which way a figure's going to be pointed. It's got to be looking into the room, but you could go 45° either side. Therefore, if I put four lamps per figure, I know I'm going to get something straight on the face, two sides, and one back.”

Overlapping with the paperwork part of the design on Madame Tussaud's was the actual construction and installation part of the process. Michael Lay, working in tandem with his Tussaud's counterpart Tim Coucher, was PRG's project manager for all of the lighting systems specification, coordination, and installation. “We were originally hired to prepare the facility impact drawings for the building,” says Lay, who also worked on the sound systems with SPL's Mark Hoffman. “Then we produced a set of bid documents for the building based on the lighting designers' plots, and they went out for a bid. After the ducks were in a row, we started supplying lighting equipment and project management while the building was going up.”

Rod Hickey's company, Big Show Construction Management, was in charge of installing the interior walls and scenery. “We were essentially the production managers for all of the themed areas,” he says, “But it was a little strange, because while they were looking for somebody to do this, they had started bidding out and buying the scenery. So there were two production teams. Ted Irwin, the guy in London, would buy the scenery [most of which was manufactured at Westsun Scenic Edge, in Toronto] and oversee the construction, and essentially at the loading dock of the scenery contractors, it became mine.”

The third major piece of the installation is supplied by Pook Diemont & Ohl, the company in charge of building the infrastructure — pipe systems, grids, and so forth — into the facility, and coordinating all of it with the visible elements of the attraction. After the raw building was delivered by Forest City Ratner, construction on Madame Tussaud's began in August 1999.

“We started building the walls, and putting in the mechanical systems, and then five or six months after that, we started putting in the scenery,” says Hickey, whose previous projects include technical direction for Cirque du Soleil's O at Bellagio in Las Vegas and construction management on Rockefeller Center's NBC Experience. “By that time, the top floor was pretty much defined in scenic terms. We finished the top floor, and then worked our way down.”

Not that it was an easy process. “The scenery came in big chunks, 8' wide and 18' tall,” Hickey says. “One of the difficulties was, there's not really a freight elevator in the building — they call it a freight elevator, but it's only 9' long. So we chain-hoisted everything up 10 flights in an empty elevator shaft. It was an adventure, bringing an 18' flat up through a big hole without bending or breaking it.” Since the ceilings on both floors are about 23' high, generally only a few feet remained above the scenery for plumbing, HVAC, and sprinklers. Squeezing became the order of the day, every day.

“One of the bigger challenges was that we wanted to tie all the themed entertainment systems together as one,” says Lay. “So we had to put in enough cabling overhead, without being excessive, to go from the top floor through the building to the lobby, and stop in all the other spaces. The whole place runs, basically, under three buttons — one labeled ‘day,’ one labeled ‘night,’ and one labeled ‘cleaning.’ We worked a long time getting the show control together.”

Little cultural clashes between the English and the American halves of the teams kept cropping up. For one thing, says Lay, “The lighting designers would specify European lighting fixtures every time and send them over. We'd say, ‘Guys, these aren't UL-listed.’ So we had a fixture specialist to find six things that were sort of like what they specified.” Then there were what the Tussaud's people perceived as staggering costs on things like electrical contractors and building subcontractors and union labor. “This was of a scale in New York that is unusual,” Hickey points out. “We did this entire thing with union carpenters and steam fitters and iron workers and electricians. These guys are used to building office or apartment towers. What we would consider sort of a normal level of change, they found very different.”

Changes there were, ongoing and until the last minute. “There was a lot of redesign work for either budgetary or artistic reasons,” says Lay. “And every little change causes a ripple. We lost 2' off one room, 2' off a mezzanine; now this lighting fixture doesn't fit, and we're going to need some more power over here….There was a lot of that.”

For Leonard's part, he not only had to move Cher, he had to modify the sound design in Popular Culture towards the end of the process. “The original brief,” he says, “was to make it so you were aware there was sound in the exhibition, but in each part, you should be able to hear precisely what's going on in there, and nothing else. Then the general manager came down and said, ‘The thing is, you don't hear anything outside the pods.’ So we turned everything up. Which now means that your hear crosstalk from each area.”

The final piece to be installed at Madame Tussaud's New York was the most important — the wax portraits, which are spiked down with steel pins through their feet. But they, of course, represent the most changeable element at the attraction. Costumes may be donated by the subject, as in the case of Ivana Trump, or designed to evoke rather than copy a famous dress, such as that worn by Marilyn Monroe, or perhaps contributed as an original by a design house. And they don't remain in perpetuity. “We've had situations where people have come in regularly and asked for changes of costume,” says Elliott. “The same with hair, obviously. Katie Couric's hair has changed about three times in the last month. It's difficult to make hair grow, though, once we cut it.”

Maintenance is also an issue, even if it just means wiping kisses off of Brad Pitt. “It used to be that you couldn't walk among them,” says Elliott says of the portraits, which at their best are quite eerily lifelike. “I fought very hard to change that in London; it took a long time to persuade them that was what it was all about, getting close to famous people.”

In some cases, perhaps too close. “It's very spooky being there at night on your own,” says Leonard. “I kept apologizing. You'd be walking around, you'd bump into somebody and say, ‘Oh, sorry.’ Then you'd realize you'd just said sorry to a Brad Pitt waxworks.”

Madame Tussauds

Design Architect
Architecture IMG, Ian McGonigal

Architect of record
Ohlausen DuBois

Deborah Fantera

Building construction manager

US production manager
Big Show

Construction management
Rod Hickey

Tussauds project director/director-Tussauds StudiosSimon Opie

Creative director-Tussauds Studios
Caroline Elliott

Celebrity Party, Madame Tussaud's Story, & Portrait Gallery set designer
Graham Cooke at Tussauds Studios (UK)

“It Happened in New York” preshow and retail space set designer
Mike Roberts at Tussauds Studios (UK)

Tussauds A/V project manager
Tim Coucher (UK)

Tussauds scenic project managers
Ted Irwin, Douglas Bullock (UK)

Sound design
John Leonard (UK)

Popular Culture set designer
Nigel Woods

Celebrity Party, Portrait Gallery, Madame Tussaud's Story and “It Happened in New York” scenery contractor for preshow
Westsun220 Scenic Edge

Lighting designers
Mark Henderson & Stephen Wentworth (UK)

Scenic installation contractor
Enterprise 23221, Jo Pinto

Lighting systems
Production Arts222, Mike Lay (NJ)

Sound systems
SPL223, Mark Hoffman (MD)

Guillotine mechanical design & construction
Delstar Engineering Ltd.224 (UK)

Electrical contractor
EJ Electric225 (NY)

Building mechanical engineer
Syska & Hennessy (NY)

Building facade lighting
Radiance Lighting226, Clay Alexander (CA)

Arts & Entertainment video and Internet systems
Scharff Weisberg227

Popular Culture graphics printing
Scanachrome (UK)

A&E mural printing
Triumph Productions (NY)

Other graphics and signs
Showman Fabricators228 & The Color Wheel229 (NY)

Building facade sign
County Neon & North Shore Neon

Circle Number on Reader Service Card