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Is Hollywood big enough for two wax museums?

Some locals and observers worry that business will melt away for the aging Hollywood Wax Museum with the opening of a Madame Tussauds in August. But representatives of both play down any rivalry.

July 22, 2009|Hugo Martin

A wax war is heating up on Hollywood Boulevard.

For 44 years, the Hollywood Wax Museum has been Tinseltown's only wax attraction featuring celebrities, a monopoly that has kept it open through wars, recessions and riots.

But that all is changing with the opening of Madame Tussauds, Hollywood Boulevard's newest multimillion-dollar attraction, next to the historic Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

The 40,000-square-foot building officially opens to the public Aug. 1, but visitors can get early admission starting today. Inside, they'll see 115 wax figures, including representations of President Obama, Samuel L. Jackson and Marilyn Monroe.

After a week of discounted rates, Tussauds' regular adult admission price will be $25, nearly double the $12.95 its rival charges.

Representatives of both play down a rivalry, saying there are enough tourists to support both businesses. But some local merchants and observers wonder whether this town is big enough for two wax museums.

At Madame Tussauds Hollywood, General Manager Adrian Jones says both attractions can succeed. But he is quick to add: "We are not a wax museum. We are an attraction. I don't want us to be mentioned in the same breath as a wax museum."

Down the road at the Hollywood Wax Museum, Tej Sundher, a partner at Kuvera Partners, the Los Angeles company that owns the attraction, acknowledges that his business may take a hit once Madame Tussauds opens. But he believes both can succeed in the long run.

"Our position is that this new attraction will be good for everyone," he said.

The opening of Madame Tussauds comes as the global economic meltdown puts a damper on tourist spending in Hollywood.

If the Hollywood Wax Museum and Madame Tussauds are competitors, then the new kid in town already appears to have quite a few advantages.

First, Madame Tussauds Hollywood has a location advantage, opening adjacent to Grauman's, which draws about 4 million visitors a year.

Workers this week were putting the finishing touches on the $55-million Madame Tussauds building, an ultra-modern red structure designed by Los Angeles architect Michael Rotondi. Grauman's famous courtyard, adorned by the concrete hand- and footprints of dozens of celebrities, will lead to the entrance to Madame Tussauds.

Second, the figures in Madame Tussauds -- many estimated to be worth as much as $300,000 each -- were created by London artists and shipped by boat to Los Angeles for assembly at the Madame Tussauds workshop.

Most of the celebrities represented in the new attraction -- including Elton John, Beyonce Knowles and Will Smith -- posed for their wax doubles. The attraction is owned by Merlin Entertainment Group Ltd. of England, which operates nine other wax-figure attractions around the world, including sites in Las Vegas, New York, Washington, London and Berlin.

At Madame Tussauds, visitors are encouraged to interact with the figures. For example, a tourist can sit at a desk with a replica of Marlon Brando in a scene reminiscent of "The Godfather" or relax on a bench next to a facsimile of Tom Hanks playing the title role in the movie "Forrest Gump."

Visitors can also ride a bicycle alongside a Lance Armstrong figure or sing karaoke while a wax depiction of "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell scowls. After the song ends, a recording of the real Cowell announces, "That was my favorite song of all time . . . not anymore."

Meanwhile, some of the figures at Hollywood Wax Museum are more than 40 years old -- and showing their age.

This year, the museum sold about 200 aging figures, including depictions of the cast of the 1970s television show "MASH" and Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn in the 1961 movie "The Guns of Navarone." The museum still has 146 figures on display -- all portraying a scene from a television show or movie.

To update the exhibits and replace the old figures, Sundher said the museum planned to add new creations, such as scenes from the films "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and "Transformers."

The wax museum is also expanding its business to include a booth where tourists can get their photo taken on a replica of a star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With the help of digital technology, the visitor's name appears on the star.

But Sundher said his company was not making the improvements to compete with Madame Tussauds. "We didn't do anything dramatically different than we would do the year before," he said.

The Hollywood Wax Museum does have an advantage that may prove crucial in these tough economic times: its lower admission price. Monique Chu, longtime manager of LA City Tours on Hollywood Boulevard, won't take sides in the wax war but points out that tourists are tight with their money now.

Nearly half of the tourists shopping for a Hollywood bus tour ask for a steep discount, she said. "If you ask me, low price sells. . . . People will go for anything free or cheap."

Jack Kyser, economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said the Hollywood Wax Museum would have difficulty competing with the worldwide reputation of Madame Tussauds. "It's going to be tough because Madame Tussauds is known internationally," he said.

When plans for Madame Tussauds Hollywood were announced several years ago, Leron Gubler, president and chief executive of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said he was worried about the future of the Hollywood Wax Museum. "There is definitely an element of competition," he said.

But the wax museum's lower prices and plans to upgrade the facility will help keep it operating alongside Madame Tussauds, Gubler said. "We think there are enough tourists in Hollywood to support numerous attractions."

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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