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Waxing Enthusiastic Over Tussaud's Rock 'n' Roll Circus : Nostalgia: Opened less than a year ago in London, the rock museum features robotic figures of rock stars sculpted in wax. Each exhibit is accompanied by music and comment.

August 04, 1990|JEFF KAYE

LONDON — A wax replica of Johnny Rotten is poised in a glass booth, hands gripping the silver stem of a microphone, its face twisted and contorted with a bit of spittle evident on the teeth.

"Look at Johnny Rotten," says a voice from overhead. "Look at him sneer at you. Look at him tell you your life is built on hypocrisy and lies." The unseen narrator reels off some facts about Rotten and his fellow Sex Pistols.

"Just look at him," the voice sneers, finally. "He doesn't like you at all."

Ouch.

Nothing in the Rock Circus prepares visitors for the sting of learning that Rotten never liked them. But at least that is the only painful moment during a tour of the combination wax museum-robotics show-Rock Hall of Fame. That is, unless you consider it painful to watch a Bob Dylan robot in Ray-Bans strumming its way through "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

Created by the Tussaud's Group, the same company behind Mme. Tussaud's Waxworks, Rock Circus features dozens of sculpted rock stars. Each figure is accompanied by a snatch of music and a dash of narrated comment.

On an upper floor of the exhibit is a staged "animatronic" show that offers a Disneyesque view of rock history. Picture a Janis Joplin robot sitting on a park bench talking about the Summer of Love, singing "Me and Bobby McGee" and introducing a David Bowie robot.

The idea of it certainly sounds kitschy. When credible musicians are displayed in such an overtly touristy way, one expects the result to be disappointing. Waxing nostalgic about rock 'n' roll is one thing. Turning rock 'n' roll nostalgia into wax is something else.

Yet the Rock Circus generally manages to stay interesting, if not compelling. The craftsmanship of the wax figures is extraordinary. And although the commentary accompanying each display will not enlighten anyone with a basic knowledge of pop history, it can be surprisingly acerbic for a tourist haunt.

Opened less than a year ago in the historic London Pavillion at Piccadilly Circus, the $18-million rock 'n' roll display is probably the most grandiose tourist attraction ever devoted exclusively to pop music.

It wasn't without careful research that The Tussaud's Group decided there was a market for wax figures of Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and Robert Plant.

The company, which also draws visitors to its castle and amusement park, was looking for a new venture in the early 1980s. "Like all good businessmen, we decided to ask the public what interested them," says Martin King, general manager of Rock Circus.

The company organized focus groups of Britons and foreigners--Americans, Scandinavians, French, Australians and Germans--and tossed ideas at them. The three main concepts Tussaud's was considering were an historical exhibit about London, the lives of the contemporary rich and famous and something they called "The Pop Experience."

What the Tussaud's researchers discovered was unequivocal, says King. "The impression is that people come to England to learn about the kings and queens," he says. "But what we found is that they much preferred to see Elvis the King, and Freddy Mercury of Queen."

The company is renowned for its wax figures, so the machinery already was in place to create a gallery of stationary rockers. But creating the "audio animatronic" figures--the rock robots--was daunting.

Deciding which stars should be represented in the Rock Circus was left to King, Tussaud's executive Ian Hanson and rock writer Paul Gambaccini. "It's the ultimate party game," says King. He said the first 85% of the choices were obvious and easy. "The real areas of dispute were the final 15%."

Rock enthusiasts will inevitably quibble at some of the choices. Americans may be baffled by the inclusion of Lonnie Donegan, the '50s British skiffle star who hit briefly in the United States with "Rock Island Line" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the Bedpost Overnight)?"

And many people will be surprised to find there is not even a wax figure, let alone a robot, of Jim Morrison.

So far, the gamble to invest heavily in a rock 'n' roll attraction appears to be paying off. King estimates that up to 750,000 rock fans will see the exhibit this year--a reasonably good showing by local standards. By comparison, Madame Tussaud's, the most popular tourist attraction in Great Britain, draws 2.7 million visitors a year.

The Rock Circus has no trouble attracting attention to itself; figures of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly and Elton John stand outside on the balcony facing Piccadilly Circus, looking down on the pedestrians like royalty.

Inside, visitors are first sent over to have their picture taken with a sculpted David Bowie. "There's no obligation" to buy the photograph later, an employee repeats for each new arrival.

Everyone gets a headset, which is keyed by electronic doodads overhead to provide the appropriate narration and music for each exhibit. Then on to the show.

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