Internet-Famous Cats in Wax

In an introduction to John Theodore Tussaud’s 1920 biography of his illustrious grandmother, The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s, French historian Hilaire Belloc wrote, “This continuation of the great collection—so long as it is maintained without too much yielding to momentary fame—is…a thing to be very thankful for.”

In surveying the world for a worthy subject yet to be immortalized in wax, Madame Tussauds—or rather Merlin Entertainments, which acquired the Madame T Group in 2007—recently settled on Grumpy Cat. Finally, a convergence of two of the world's most polarizing topics: cats and wax figures. Seen here in her December debut at Madame Tussauds San Francisco, the Internet-famous feline's doppelgänger is set to embark on a five-city U.S. tour.

Unveiling Grumpy Cat's wax figure at Madame Tussauds San Francisco, December 2015

Belloc continues in his introduction, “Already those of us who, like the present writer, are well on into middle age, can judge how the younger generation is beginning to regard as historical these simulacra, which, when they were first modeled, seemed in our own youth insignificant because they were contemporary.”

Look, mine is not to question why an Internet-famous cat and, if so, then why Grumpy. I might have gone with Maru; Henri, Le Chat Noir; or even the Pattycake Cats. While I acknowledge that they’re all a little one-note, aren’t all Internet-famous cats kind of limited? No offense intended, but Grumpy doesn’t really demonstrate a life skill beyond looking permanently peeved. Meanwhile, Maru jumps in boxes, Henri speaks French (!), and the Pattycake Cats play pattycake—which brings me to animatronic potential.

Grumpy Cat’s waxwork is animatronic! If you’re thinking, “Animatronic? A wax figure?” get ready to have your mind blown. Some of the earliest wax figures, including many from the original collection of Madame Tussaud and her uncle (perhaps dad), mentor, and benefactor, Philippe Curtius, were mechanically enhanced. The oldest surviving Madame T figure is a recumbent Sleeping Beauty, said to be modeled by Dr. Curtius on Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry. Her chest rises and falls and reveals a glowing, beating heart.

Sleeping Beauty, sculpted by Philippe Curtius, 1763

Thinking that perhaps such animation might help to defang wax figures among people who associate them with corpses, I asked one such person, my wife, who said decisively, as if she had been waiting her whole life to be asked, “Sleeping Beauty is a fictitious character, so I wouldn’t be bothered one way or another. Wax figures of real people are creepy because other people knew them and loved them, and if people didn’t love them it’s even sadder.”

Grumpy Cat’s figure is the first to be mechanized at Madame Tussauds in over a century. If the plan is to reintroduce animatronics to the museum's waxworks, probably best start with a less-than-dynamic personality.

Does the addition of an Internet-famous cat represent the untenable "yielding to momentary fame" Belloc presciently warned of in 1920? Well, yes, but no. Madame Tussaud, even when alive, constantly refreshed her collection to keep attendance up, unveiling effigies of executed murderers before their corporeal bodies had even been cut down from the gallows, all to satisfy the basest curiosities of her public. By comparison a cat seems harmless enough, and just like any other subject of a fame that burns bright and brisk, Grumpy can always be cycled into storage should interest wane. Come to think of it, that's the Madame Tussauds collection I'd most like to see!

Matching Grumpy's eye color

Grumpy endures Madame Tussauds' exacting measurement processes

 

All images by Madame Tussauds Group

 

Fleeting Amusements

I've always been drawn to waxworks. I grew up near one of the best in the world, Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, Calif. The allure of the art form is difficult to explain. Attraction is so personally endemic we can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t feel exactly as we do. Why are we drawn to any aesthetic or person?

The majestic entrance to Movieland Wax Museum (1961-2005), Buena Park, Calif.

On a week-long business trip to New Orleans in October 2015, my first visit to the city, I looked forward to seeing Musée Conti, the city’s historical wax museum. My workshop hotel was located just a couple of blocks from the museum, but essential attendance ran from 8 to 5 daily; the museum was open 10 to 4. I felt a sense of urgency as Musée Conti, one of our more notable extant historical wax museums, would soon shut down after 50 years of continuous operation. The value of its land had so far outstripped the waxworks’ financial viability it would have been almost ridiculous for the founding family owners not to sell it. On January 30, 2016, the museum would close its doors forever to make way for condo development.

I did manage to go back and see it, just two weeks before it closed. Several blog entries on this site will document that memorable visit.

Detail from the enormous Battle of New Orleans set piece at Musée Conti, New Orleans, 2016

When next I returned to the city, in late July, the museum front looked just as I'd left it, but when I strained to look inside, I saw this where the lobby once stood…

The lobby of Musée Conti (1964-2016), as of July 23, 2016

Movieland met its own thankless end in 2005, once the land it stood on, too, could earn exponentially more annually than the museum could possibly generate. Dozens of waxworks across the country have been similarly gutted and, pardon the term, liquidated over the past few decades, tracing a downward trajectory of interest corresponding roughly with shifts in entertainment media from public to private domains. Attempts to reconcile that disconnect have led many historical museums to integrate rich interactive personal media into their public spaces, allowing visitors to precisely define their individual experience of the collection. The American Civil War Museum in Gettysburg shifted gears profoundly in 2014 when new owner FutureStake, Inc., dismantled its wax dioramas and auctioned the figures.

Gathering soldiers for auction

Lucky buyers leave the auction site with their score

The space has been reimagined as the Gettysburg Heritage Center, where visitors can learn about the town’s history and civilian inhabitants prior to the battle that would forever change its meaning. I root for this idea of repatriating the area’s unburdened soul, I do, but how I wish that soul could have been executed in wax! In announcing the changes, museum president Tammy Myers said that they would be creating a more interactive experience for visitors, with features such as smart tables and 3-D programming. “Realizing that everyone learns differently,” she said, “the new exhibit space employs many different educational tools in an effort to reach each guest.”

However noble such reimagining, however valuable a museum’s land, I’ve felt hollow as I watch these waxworks disappear. The impetus for this website, an as-yet loosely defined project dedicated to waxworks extant and in memory, came to a head with a chance meeting of a destined friend and our random visit to a B-grade tourist trap museum in a second-tier city. I won’t identify the museum here. I’m not interested in tearing down museums that are still trying to hang on. I have a place in my heart for all of them, even where figures are only sporadically labeled, where some have broken fingers and twisted limbs, where the cabinet lights are dimmed or snuffed entirely on figures whose disrepair has reached such crisis levels they embarrass even the most negligent operators.

Creepy Woody Allen with wing-man Bing Crosby, at a museum to remain nameless

Still, there was something going on at that museum on a level apart from our joyful appreciation of its poor execution, and apart from what a guest might experience in the most richly layered multimedia exhibit of historical information. We tagged after a family of four and listened as a father embraced the opportunity to teach his kids about presidents, classic sports heroes, and religious figures. Our sense of irony partially gave way in the face of his utter earnestness. It occurred to me that waxwork struck an essential balance here. Had it not been for the visual stimulation, I’m not sure the father could have held his kids’ interest in the subjects, and were it not for the singularity of wax representation, I’m not sure they would have been having a conversation at all. Instead of standing as a family in front of an admittedly off-kilter wax Lincoln—whose Gettysburg counterpart drew $1,500 at auction—the four would split apart, each to define his own exhibit’s content and boundaries. I think both formats of museum experience are valid and valuable, but barring a partner who’s extremely forgiving of hosting an uncanny valley in her living room, only one kind of exhibit can largely be enjoyed at home with some concerted Google sleuthing.

My new friend and I left the museum drunk with joy. In such a state, it took only a couple of real cocktails and some breathlessly related wax anecdotes to convince me that I needed to dedicate something beyond casual interest to the disappearing art form. And I have that beloved, anonymous museum to thank for this blog, this documenting, this obsession that gathers pace by the day.

August 2016 update: An agreement has been reached to resettle Musée Conti's collection, intact, as part of the revamped Jazzland Theme Park, to be built on the site of the Katrina-destroyed Six Flags New Orleans. While visually mesmerizing, the stagnant and increasingly decrepit remains of Six Flags have stood for more than a decade as a reminder of immense tragedy and corporate abandon. As much as I admittedly would love to see the ruins in person, professionals have artfully documented them for us, and it's high time the state of Louisiana is free of this particular albatross.

All text, Musée Conti images, and Woody Allen image © 2016 Sixpenny Waxworks; Movieland Wax Museum entrance scanned from tourist postcard; Gettysburg auction images © 2014 Sean Simmers