A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
“Singh used every trick in the book of hucksterism: crazy promotions, giveaways and mimes, skateboarding gorillas, and an original Munchkin hanging out front as tourist bait.”
BY AL RIDENOUR
The body is shrouded in cloudy plastic, but it doesn’t obscure that frozen leer. Tej Sundher somberly peels it back. It’s Hugh Hefner all right. “These are his own pants and shoes, and the robe is custom. It’s how he wanted to be shown,” Sundher says. A quick touch confirms that Hugh’s hand has all the life of a slab of sashimi.
“It’s silicone,” Sundher says. “Not wax. It never melts and won’t have to be repainted. If we clean him and dust him every other day and maintain him, he’ll last decades.” Sundher is marketing director of the Hollywood Wax Museum, and Hef is their latest addition.
Each pore and every eyelash is on target. It’s scary-good. This pioneering use of digital scanning by a wax museum may be the biggest thing since Madame Tussaud started making death masks of Parisian royalty. Sundher explains that scanning, casting, sculpting, and recasting is the key. Walk around Hugh, and you’d almost expect the eyes to follow (especially if you’re female), but in the back there seems to be a mistake. An incipient bald spot depicted in the reference photos littering the studio is gone! “All figures here are presented at their peak,” Sundher calmly explains. “We’ve removed some of the aging.”
Sounds like heaven, but then, Sundher is the marketing man. The way he tells it, his grandfather, Spoony Singh, a Punjabi Sikh, settled in British Columbia, made some dough in the lumber industry, then, on a whim, came to Hollywood just to open a museum where tourists could enjoy close contact with their idols.
Curator Ken Horn takes over after the showcasing with a tour of the museum downstairs. The 49-year-old artist has neither the high-gloss perspective nor athletic physique of Sundher. After all for 20 years, he’s seen these figures through plenty of growing pains, the wax equivalent of disfiguring acne. “Wax has to breathe; that causes bubbles wherever paint’s applied. Every two or three years, they’ll blister,” he explains breezily. “You just take the heads off, strip, and repaint.”
From the entrance it looks beautiful: Marilyn straddling that blustery grate from The SevenYear Itch, but it’s right here that trouble starts. “We have to constantly change that underwear,” Horn says. “People are stretching it out trying to get a better idea of what’s going on down there.” And it’s not just Monroe’s coquettish pose that causes when fans get to cozy up to the stars. forget that few figures are erogenously detailed. Forget the security cameras, motion detectors, alarms, and patrolling staff, countless visitors — some people just can’t be stopped. After all, isn’t the darkness and yielding passivity of their wax love objects nothing if not an invitation to violate their electronically guarded space.
“They’ll unzip the pants, or pull them to the ground,” Horn says. Jane Fonda’s on her fifth halter top. Mexican soap star Lucia Mendez had her $3000 Bob Mackie gown torn to ribbons, and former wrestling vixen Sable regularly has her laced corset ripped open. Horror host Elvira’s plunging neckline has lost its cling thanks to hands waxing amorous. Perhaps Hugh will feel at home.
Then there are vandals whose motives more closely resemble pious medieval relic hunters. The crown of thorns belonging to the Pieta was long ago pilfered. The Last Supping Jesus originally had hands of sublimely sculpted wax, but finger by finger they were snapped up, and now the Savior sports clumsy but durable fiberglass mitts. All the food has been swiped from the Da Vinci-inspired Last Supper spread, and now coins hurled wishing-well style are all the disciples have to eat. “The thing I don’t like,” says Horn, “is when they throw the coins at the heads to see if they can embed them.”
Sometimes fans get more ambitious. Little “Tatoo” of Fantasy Island was stolen outright along with Shirley Temple and the upper half of Clark Gable — all in one ambitious heist. Some desperate soul even attempted to smuggle a simian head from the Planet of the Apes display by tucking it into a baby carriage. The chimp Cornelius from that same ensemble is also gone — not stolen, but presented in exchange for celebrity favors. “Michael Jackson really, really wanted him,” Horn says, “so that’s where he is now, poor thing.”
Horn spins an even stranger yarn about another figure given as a gift. “A secretary called up about 19 years ago,” he says. “She wanted a figure of Marlon Brando as the Godfather for a Christmas gift, but she refused to give the buyer’s name.” The mystery deepened as Horn was asked to make the hand-off in a back alley in San Diego. When a black limo showed and a woman decked in pounds of gold emerged, Horn hopped out to lift the sheet covering the body. That’s when police rolled in. Five cars, and lots more pointing guns. Once all the screwball misunderstandings were cleared up, the cops turned friendly and started asking about getting their very own wax John Wayne for departmental hero worship.
For 25 years prior to his first dabblings in wax, Horn did monster makeup for the studios, including a stint on the first Star Trek feature. While working on that production, designers from the Halloween crew came fishing for a disguise that would look nice on killer Michael Myers. “We took the Shatner mask we’d made, sent it over for white paint to make it ghostly,” Horn recalls. “Since we were doing Chewbaccas in the hair department, Shatner got some of that glued on too.” As head makeup artist on Halloween 4, Horn has seen to it that the museum’s exhibit features actual costuming from that film.
Around the corner from Halloween, there’s a Texas Chainsaw Massacre going on. An eviscerated blonde hangs from a meat-hook, and gruesomely masked killer proudly displays a severed head drizzling blood. “Notice the girl is blond, and the head’s got dark hair,” Horn whispers excitedly. “Behind that mask — O.J. Simpson! We just had him around in storage, so I put the mask on him, and made a few alterations. What really spooks me though — I made this before any of that business about him killing his wife, who was blond, and her boyfriend, who had dark hair. And look,” Horn hisses, “he’s even wearing leather gloves!”
During his makeup career, Horn managed to collect around 48 life masks, some of which he’s used for reproducing figures like Vincent Price. Appropriately, Price is depicted in a tableau from House of Wax, in which his character goes about his business by candy-coating victims in bubbling wax. Could something like that actually work? Horn answers quickly, as if he’s spent a bit too much time mulling over the possibilities. “The figure would stand up.” In fact, in 1971, Spoony Singh himself purchased the mummy of Oklahoma train robber Elmer McCurdy who later ended up so layered with paint he was mistaken for a dummy. Resold to fun-house operators in Long Beach, this outlaw displayed since 1911 as “The Embalmed Bandit” became the stuff of urban legend when a visiting film crew knocked loose a limb exposing human bone under the phosphorescent paint.
“Spoony came from that sideshow school of display,” Horn explains, “Originally, it was all black lights and chicken-wire with live scares in the Chamber of Horrors.” Singh used every trick in the book of hucksterism: crazy promotions, giveaways and mimes, skateboarding gorillas, and an original Munchkin hanging out front as tourist bait.
And he hosted plenty of industry parties too, displaying a special connection to the cast and crew of the Addams Family, whose torture chamber furnishings he later inherited. A turbaned Spoony is even said to have ridden an elephant down Hollywood Boulevard (presumably during a parade). “Quite a character, Spoony.” Horn admits. “Did you see him? You should!” He turns quickly to lead the way up to the studio.
Having heard from Spoony’s grandson that the old man was “under the weather” and couldn’t even speak on the phone, it’s not clear what to expect. Horn passes a few bodies in need of restoration: Gen. George Patton, whose head is off getting a facelift, and Cindi Lauper, who seems to be a few spangles shy of extinction “She hasn’t really done much lately,” Horn says dryly. “Eventually we’ll probably cut off her head and shelve it. Maybe recycle the body.” Horn pushes open a door to reveal a grisly gallery of at least 120 heads. Most are unfamiliar and may end up re-sculpted like O.J. Some parts will simply be melted down, he says, gesturing toward a saucepan containing something that looks like Jeffrey Dahmer’s lunch.
How to explain Hitler’s highly recognizable mug among all the nondescripts? “We just got tired of wiping off the spit,” Horn says wearily.
In one corner stands a draped figure. Horn pulls back the sheeting and adjusts a pinpoint spot to highlight the paint job between beard and turban. The radiance brings out the guru within the showman. Along with Hef, Spoony will be unveiled this February [this month, right?YES] in celebration of the museum’s 35th anniversary. And if Hef looks a tad lonely without a bunny bringing drinks, there’s always Cindi. A heat gun, some paraffin, some paint – the girl could have a whole new lease on life.