Stiff Little Fingers
By: Allison Davis, Design by Jon Adams
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
Faced with entering the Time Portal lobby of the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, I had a flashback to my first weekend of college. One of the forced orientation bonding activities at Barnard College entailed going to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in New York. On the trip, I mainly became oriented with my narcissistic first-week friend and her first-week boyfriend as they posed with a fake Tiger Woods, smooched a faux George Clooney, and did unspeakable things to a defenseless Britney Spears. It was an uncomfortable experience to say the least, and afterward I never thought I’d enjoy a wax museum again.
Then last year’s “Family Portrait” Porchlight reading changed my mind. Rodney Fong spoke nostalgically and humorously about running around his parents’ Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf as a child. I was totally entranced. He spun charming stories about this family-owned attraction, where Rodney is currently president. The idea of operating a strange and successful business with your close relatives seems like such a novel idea, especially with my family, where everyone is on totally separate career paths.
So that explains why, inspired by Rodney’s reading, I’ve now joined the other camera-toting tourists milling about Fishermen’s Wharf midweek. It’s time to look my disdain for creepy wax celebrities in the glass eye – and in the process learn the backstory of this quirky mom and pop business.
My day starts in the lobby waiting for my guide, museum curator Curtis Huber, who’ll give me a behind-the-scenes tour of the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf. (Rodney juggles multiple occupations – he’s the current president of San Francisco Port Commission and recent chair of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, among other positions – and he’s running off to a meeting when I arrive.)
It’s the off-season and I realize I’m one of the few patrons who has wandered into the museum. I’m basically alone with President Obama, who looks shorter than I imagined, but the artist nailed his Superman stance. I’d heard that wax sculptors often use photos to deduce measurements on everything from actual height to exact fingernail length and real earlobe size, but I am pretty sure Obama’s ears aren’t this gigantic.
During my contemplation, Curtis, an affable guy who resembles Jeff Bridges, comes up the stairs from the first floor, which houses both the public museum and a private workshop. Curtis has worked here for over 34 years. He got his start as the guy who pretends to be a statue then comes to life at the exact moment you walk by – to convince you to buy tickets and, perhaps, haunt your dreams. When I point out Obama’s giant lobes, Curtis confirms that the president’s ears were sized as accurately (huge!) as possible.
Curtis and I then descend the giant staircase, which has a grand chandelier hanging overhead. The first statues we pass are of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, frozen into their seminal scene in Titanic. The Titanic theme song is on loop here, which causes us to exit rather quickly – Curtis hears this song a lot.
We then pass by statue scenes of movie stars and athletes in the Sports and Entertainment section, figures of piety in the Hall of Religion, and presidents and war dictators in the Hall of History. The museum is so quiet today it feels like a library.
The wax figures are set up along a winding path that at one point displays a reproduction of King Tut’s tomb, which was inspired by Rodney’s father’s trip to Egypt. As we travel through shadowy halls and railed off vignettes (no touching!), I am tempted to snap a photo of every statue we walk past.
Melt With You
We move deeper through the exhibits and I’m suddenly reminded of the House of Wax film (Paris Hilton version, sorry), and start imagining being petrified in one of the museum’s tableaus. I move from feeling excited to slightly terrified of being here.
The creepiness mounts as we enter the Chamber of Horrors, where a woman’s screams play on loop and an interactive electric chair is here for trying out. I attempt to sit, but then run away before the first volt even passes. Naturally, we stop in front of a scene from Vincent Prices’ House of Wax, where he is dumping a victim into a bubbling pot.
“That’s total bullshit,” Curtis says of the villain’s attempt to turn a human into a wax figure. “A body would decompose pretty rapidly inside of the wax. And what happens if there’s a heat wave?”
So I can rest easy, nobody is going to dip me into a giant cauldron and stick me in the Last Supper scene. I should mention, though, that the other dolls get put to work in multiple tableaus. Richard Burton has been recycled as a fisherman, and I could’ve sworn George H.W. Bush was getting tortured medieval style in the Chamber of Horrors.
When we finally arrive at the brightly lit workshop, Curtis admits, “I’m a bit of a hoarder.” Indeed, the shop is cluttered with stuff – mostly body parts, and specifically heads. I have to resist the urge to take Chuck Norris’ noggin home with me.
The workshop is primarily used to maintain the museum’s 350 figure collection. Curtis oversees about one new statue a year, but he’s also charged with patching up faces and making costume decisions, as well as overseeing the upkeep of the building. He tells me the staff used to create more of the statues, but as both business and the size of the collection has grown, the family now commissions fresh bodies from outside artists.
Making a statue can take up to two years, depending on the level of detail, and it costs upwards of $25,000. The museum tries to unveil four or five new faces a year, and it is quite a process. First the artist measures the real person or researches the icon’s measurements to create a body cast. Occasionally, Curtis says, they’ll find models with the same build as a celebrity and make a cast of a real person.
The heads are made out of WED clay (the name stands for William Elias Disney), which is what Disney uses to model its cartoons. The clay is applied to a wax model and dried, with the plaster impression serving as a negative mold of the head. Pour some hot wax into the mold, insert medical-grade glass eyes in the correct color, and voilá, you have yourself a new head.
After that, the artist implants dentures, covers the skin with layers of translucent paint to match the skin tone, and then implants 100,000 to 140,00 individual strands of human hair into the head. The hair planting takes at least two months, and when it’s done, Rodney’s mother Beverly styles it.
Local celebrities – like former mayor Willie Brown – sometimes donate clothing for their wax likeness. Curtis had to bore a hole in $600 Italian loafers donated from Willie’s personal collection in order to use them at the museum.
After we tour the workshop, Curtis takes me back into the museum’s offices. There’s a wax bust of Spock on a desk, above which hangs the original admission sign for the museum.
When Rodney and I spoke briefly earlier in the day, he told me that the idea for the museum dates back to 1963, when Rodney’s grandfather, Thomas Fong, owned a vacant grain warehouse on Fisherman’s Wharf. A man from the Seattle World’s Fair rented the space to show off his wax statues. A few months later, the same man was arrested and later deported.
Thomas called his wife and told her what had happened to the Seattle man, and that there was now a line out the door to see his wax figures. What should he do, he asked. Her reply? “Keep selling tickets.”
When the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf officially opened that same year, admission was $1.50, a penny per statue.
The Fongs went on to purchase, and later sell, two wax museums in Los Angeles, and they have continued to run the museum here as an independent attraction.
Curtis ends the tour by leaving me in front of the peacemaker’s conference scene back in the Hall of History, where I contemplate Gandhi’s likeness and his proximity to Martin Luther King Jr.
While I appreciate the museum much more now that I’ve been behind the scenes, it’s still a little terrifying being the sole moving human in a room full of humanlike figures. I rush through the rest of the tour, with all the vacant eyes and smiles watching me as I go.
I do, however, stop to snap some photos along the way with a couple different figures – Reese Witherspoon, Albert Einstein, and Adolf Hitler. (Curtis had told me earlier that Hitler is an oddly popular figure.)
At the exit, I contemplate another popular attraction offered by the museum – the chance to preserve part of your body in paraffin, to take home as a souvenir.
In the end, I resist. I like the museum, but I’m not eager to join the cast, horror movie style.
Do It Yourself
Tickets at the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf are $14 for general admission. Be one of 100,000 yearly visitors to get acquainted with wax likenesses of Oprah, The Olsen Twins, and an incredibly pious Sophia Loren (nestled into the summit on the mount scene in the Hall of Religion), among others. The wax army is constantly growing, too. Soon, Miley Cyrus will join the cast.
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