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Spoony Singh, 83; Established Wax Museum

October 21, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

The group of men whom Spoony Singh raised a glass with in 1964 included the owner of a traveling circus with a collection of wax figures, which may explain why somebody suggested Hollywood as the perfect setting for a wax museum.

The next day, Singh flew from Victoria, Canada, to stroll the streets of Hollywood. Popping into the hot spots, he failed to see a single celebrity but noticed that plenty of the non-famous made do with the footprints of the stars at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

"So, I thought, let's bring the stars back to Hollywood Boulevard. Let's allow people to get close and look into the eyes of their favorite entertainers. Believe me, I didn't know if it would even work," Singh later recalled.

Within days, he had leased a spot on Hollywood Boulevard near Grauman's, and nine months later he opened the Hollywood Wax Museum, where the business his family runs remains more than 40 years later.

Singh died Wednesday, two days before his 84th birthday, of congestive heart failure at his home in Malibu, said his grandson Tej Sundher.

Johnny Grant, the unofficial mayor of Hollywood, credited Singh's entrepreneurial skills and the professionalism of the waxen likenesses with creating "one of the most popular tourist attraction destinations in Hollywood."

When Singh opened a second attraction, the Hollywood Guinness World Records Museum, in 1991, his marketing skills were on display. The ribbon was cut by a 7-foot-7 1/4 woman, reported to be the world's tallest.

The day the wax museum opened -- Feb. 26, 1965 -- hundreds lined up to pay the $1.50 admission. The figures of Marilyn Monroe, who would prove to be a perennial favorite, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow were among the big attractions, although Harlow was often damaged by pranksters.

The cheerful Singh took it in stride.

"Look, I know other museums are more stately and artistic," he told The Times in 1970. "But on Hollywood Boulevard, dignity kind of gets lost in the shuffle."

Singh wanted a museum where people screamed instead of tiptoed. One of his favorite stunts was to place breathing actors among the waxen so visitors would be startled by sudden movements. (Fearing lawsuits, the museum ended the practice of "live scares" more than a decade ago.)

"He always claimed young guys would bring their girlfriends just so they could get a guaranteed hug in the horror chamber," said Raubi Sundher, the museum's president and Singh's son.

The nearly 200 figures on display, created in-house, change with the times. For decades, historical characters such as Mohandas K. Gandhi and U.S. presidents shared space with celebrities such as Elton John and Raquel Welch.

By the 1990s, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and the Beatles had become big favorites. The glass enclosing the Fab Four bore visible proof, because it was often covered with lipstick marks.

Reacting to the celebrity fascination of the times, the museum decided five years ago to focus solely on entertainment figures, said Tej Sundher, the museum's director of marketing.

A side benefit of making a life-size copy of a living celebrity was meeting the original to take pictures and measurements, Singh once said.

"I remember being thrilled that Phil Silvers was even funnier off camera," Singh said in a museum release.

Only the heads and hands of a figure are made of wax; the bodies are fiberglass. The heads of those who fade from the public's interest, such as actor-singer Dean Martin or comedian Flip Wilson, are housed in a floor-to-ceiling storage area.

A favorite story of Singh's involved gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who once asked, "How do you like America?"

Singh responded, "My family left India because we couldn't get enough to eat. Now, I'm paying a doctor to lose weight."

Spoony Singh Sundher was born Oct. 20, 1922, in the Punjab region of India. At 3, he moved to Victoria with his family.

He used Singh -- which means "lion," is commonly given Sikh boys as a middle name and is a surname for many -- to emphasize his roots. The rest of his family uses Sundher.

Always the entrepreneur, Singh owned sawmills and an amusement park in Canada before coming to Los Angeles, where he became "this genie kind of character" who brought attention to the museum, his son said.

Wearing his turban and a Nehru jacket, Singh appeared on television's "What's My Line?" in 1965, but the game-show panel failed to guess his profession.

A decade ago, the family opened a branch of the wax museum in Branson, Mo. To distinguish the outside, a 150-foot-long entertainers' version of Mt. Rushmore was commissioned with the faces of John Wayne, Presley, Monroe and Charlie Chaplin. The sculpture was Singh's idea.

In addition to his son Raubi and grandson Tej, Singh is survived by his wife of 63 years, Chanchil; five other children, Meva, Janik, Indie, Jehlam and Kabir, who is the wax museum's general manager; and 10 other grandchildren.

The funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive.

Instead of flowers, the family requests donations to the American Heart Assn., 7272 Greenville Ave., Dallas, TX 75231 or Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, Stem Cell Project, 4650 Sunset Blvd., MS No. 62, Los Angeles, CA 90027.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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