SAN FRANCISCO — As a youngster, David Robert Cellitti would stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. to catch showings of horror movie classics like "Frankenstein" and "Dracula."
One particularly inspiring movie for Cellitti was "House of Wax," the 1953 chiller that launched Vincent Price's horror career and also planted the seeds of Cellitti's future vocation.
Cellitti parlayed his fascination with the macabre into a career, first in film--helping create special effects for "An American Werewolf in London," "Dreamscape" and remakes of "King Kong" and "The Thing"--and more recently as a full-time practitioner of a craft that even he calls archaic: making wax figures.
As resident sculptor for Buena Park's Movieland Wax Museum, Cellitti has created wax likenesses of TV horror-movie hostess Elvira and actress Linda Blair (in a scene from "The Exorcist," complete with spinning head) for Movieland's Chamber of Horrors, which he helped design. He also has sculpted wax figures of Sylvester Stallone and George Burns, Julio Iglesias and Anthony Perkins.
"I grew up wanting to make monsters," Cellitti, 35, said in a recent interview at the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, where he is also chief sculptor. "I guess, in a way, I took a childhood fantasy and turned it into a reality."
Ironically, achieving his goal of creating special effects for Hollywood horror films was something less than a dream come true.
"To me, being in the movies was the most horrifying experience I've ever had in my entire life," Cellitti said.
The chief source of Cellitti's disillusionment was his disdain for the typical Hollywood horror products that emphasize gore over fright.
"The thing I fell in love with in 'Frankenstein' and 'Dracula' and 'The Mummy' was that these were characters, and they were memorable. There was suspense and mystery--that's where the horror came in," he said.
"To show someone get a hatchet in the face is just basically a cheap shot. Of course you're going to get a reaction, but it's cheap," Cellitti said. "I think what I found interesting in horror movies is not even a part of film anymore."
So for the last four years, Cellitti has been content to work primarily for wax museums, far removed as they are from the fame and financial rewards of film making.
"At this point, I'm sort of the classic big fish in a little pond, and that's fine," Cellitti said. "I'm basically very happy in my little ivory tower, cranking out my wax figures."
Cellitti learned his craft when, as a high school student in Palo Alto, he landed an apprenticeship at the last major wax figure studio in the country, the Stubergh family studio in Hollywood. For one summer, the future sculptor learned the secrets of wax figure-making from one of the craft's most colorful characters, Katherine Stubergh.
"She was an incredible woman," Cellitti said about Stubergh, who is now retired and living in Hawaii. "She thought nothing of the people she met in her life. She met Einstein. She met Chaplin. She met everybody that was anybody in Hollywood, and they all sat (posed) for her." Stubergh also sculpted likenesses of many of the horror movie greats, including Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price and also did the figures for "House of Wax."
Cellitti, then 15, found the lessons invaluable. "When I look back on it now I feel so lucky," he said. "There's no place to learn this stuff anymore."
These days, Cellitti is surrounded in his tiny workshop by numerous waxworks-in-progress. The sculptor's main project at the moment is a Mel Gibson figure scheduled to be installed at Movieland in December.
Cellitti is also working on an Arnold Schwarzenegger likeness that he estimates will take as long as six months. "On a body like that, you don't just go out and buy a mannequin and slap a head on it," Cellitti said. "That whole thing is going to have to be sculpted."
Simpler figures where only head and hands are exposed typically take 60 to 90 days to finish. Because he works on several projects simultaneously, Cellitti completes an average of one new figure a month.
Most of his recent work has been in celebrity likenesses, which he said are more challenging than fantasy figures. "Any sculptor that's worth his salt can turn out a fantasy character, because there's no point of reference. To do a wax likeness of someone . . . requires a lot more ability and a lot more discipline than it does to make a rubber monster."
But Cellitti, chief sculptor for the Buena Park and San Francisco museums for 14 months, is up against a public that has become disenchanted with wax museums, which hit their peak in the early 1970s.
Movieland has survived, he said, by opting for "superrealism," and by placing its figures in elaborate sets with environmental effects--including sound, lighting and even movement--thus getting away from the traditional wax museum image of static figures along drapery-lined walls.
But Cellitti concedes that expectations often are hard to meet.
"It doesn't matter how good the likeness is--at least 25% of the public is not going to like it," the sculptor explained. "Everybody walking around out there has their own perception of what these people look like.