Wax figures of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt

Figures of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt pose at the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

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My reasons for not visiting wax museums make a lengthy list. I'm going to guess yours is similarly long. Here's one reason: I don't really care what John Wayne looked like. Another: Wax museums are just so low-tech compared to, say, virtual reality helmets. Also, they have a whiff of the disreputable about them, since they often inhabit neighborhoods with touristy T-shirt shops and sidewalk machines that flatten and elongate pennies. What's more, many of the wax figures keep staring at me, even after I leave the room. Still, I go. I stand in line (perhaps behind you) and I pay my money and I marvel. I marvel that wax museums still exist at all. I marvel at how creepily realistic many of the figures are and how creepily unrealistic others are. Some have oversized hands like the paws of golden retriever puppies; others have heads the size of microwave ovens tottering atop sticklike bodies with ill-fitting suits. (Typically, only the heads and hands are made of wax; the rest of the body is almost always a wire armature bulked out with stuffing, unless it's a starlet with abundant cleavage.)

The more wax museums I visit, the more I learn. For instance, I now know that different techniques yield different-looking figures. And that wax museums periodically hire hairdressers to wash and style the hair. And that it's very hard—if not impossible—to capture Mick Jagger's sneer in wax.

The most noted name in wax museums is, of course, Madame Marie Tussaud. Born in 1761, she was the niece of a prominent doctor who had a special talent: He knew how to make strikingly realistic wax impressions. This was done by creating a plaster mold from a face—living, dead, whatever—then filling the hardened mold with melted beeswax, which has an eerily lifelike translucency and sheen when it hardens.

Marie proved a remarkably quick study and soon was making impressions of many who lost their heads to the guillotine during the French Revolution. In the early 19th century, Tussaud toured London with her collection of wax heads. The displays created a sensation that never quite abated, and Tussaud established her first permanent exhibit in London in 1803. Today, Madame Tussaud's wax museum is among the longest-lived and most popular attractions in Great Britain.

In the early 1960s, when some of the Tussaud heirs decided to start franchising wax museums abroad, the phenomenon crossed the Atlantic and began its North American heyday. The museums caught the imagination and soon flourished wherever tourists paused.

The Royal London Wax Museum opened in 1961 in Victoria, British Columbia, and for the better part of four decades has been housed on two floors of the former Canadian Pacific Steamship line's terminal on the city's Inner Harbour.

The Royal London, as befits the name, emphasizes royalty. The first royal you meet is Elizabeth II, looking as she did when she celebrated her 50th year on the throne in 2003. Her face is creased with lifelike wrinkles and her head is topped with realistic jewels. (A younger version of her freshly coronated self is nearby.) Behind her is a succession of other monarchs, including Henry VIII and all six of his wives, which struck me as a little awkward.

In fact, the arrangement of the figures is a large part of whether a wax museum works or not. Like the host of a good dinner party, the curator needs to know who should sit next to whom.

Take Princess Diana, a staple at practically every wax museum. At the Royal London, Diana started out next to Charles—"all lovey-dovey," Ken Lane, the museum's managing director, tells me. When The Trouble started, Lane positioned them looking off in opposite directions, then later moved them farther apart. Then came the divorce, and Diana was exiled down the platform, where she remains. (In life, Diana was trouble in other ways. "Her hairstyle kept changing and her clothes kept changing, and sometimes she wore hats," Lane says.)

Another seating problem cropped up a short while back in the museum's Knoll of Knowledge. Henry Ford had been on a bench with Albert Einstein, but then someone pointed out that Ford was anti-Semitic. "So we had to separate them," Lane says.

Running a wax museum isn't as easy as it looks. Celebrities—even wax ones—place unique demands on those who work with them. No, Diana won't complain when you usher her away from the rest of the royals. But you need to stay current (Britney Spears: hair or no hair?), and before paying up to $20,000 for a new figure, you must decide who will likely endure in the public imagination and who won't. You need to know just when to cycle out fading stars. (Note to the Royal London: Charles Laughton is overly ripe.) And certain figures incite people to violence. In San Francisco, somebody went after Saddam Hussein during Fleet Week. And before the last election, George W. Bush got roughed up in Las Vegas and had to be sent out for repairs.

For breadth of collection, it's hard to beat the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, which is set among the hurdy-gurdy delights of the San Francisco waterfront. Nearly 300 figures are displayed here. There's Leonardo (the actor) and Leonardo (the painter) and regulars like Elvis and Marilyn and Tom Cruise. There are also intriguing groupings, such as the "Vixens" (Cleopatra, Salome, Marie Antoinette, Mata Hari) and the "Glam Girls" (Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, the Olsen Twins, Paris Hilton, and the most convincing Julia Roberts I've ever seen).

Most notably, the museum has the best selection of historical figures, such as William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, an earless Vincent van Gogh, and a wonderfully crazed Salvador Dalí. I like seeing these random notables one after another, since each pleasingly triggers a stray thought or two and dim recollections of opinionated high school classmates. Anyway, I find historical figures far more convincing than contemporary ones, probably because I never really knew what they looked like. Unlike Johnny Depp, whom I see in the tabloids at the supermarket checkout every week.

Here's an entertaining thing to do at a wax museum: Look for figures that have been recycled. Once they've outlived their celebrity, they may crop up in a scene elsewhere. For instance, does that shrouded lady kneeling before Jesus on the cross in San Francisco's world religions section look vaguely familiar? She should. It's Sophia Loren.

At the Hollywood Wax Museum in Los Angeles, the experience is more about the tableau than the individual figure, with many of the exhibits elaborately crafted to re-create scenes from movies. That's appropriate; the bronze-and-terrazzo stars of the Hollywood Walk of Fame are just outside the door, and the wax museum is but a half-block from the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards are held annually. (I happened to be visiting the day of the awards, and I later saw John Travolta pull up in a limo. Frankly, he wasn't nearly as authentic as what I'd seen inside.) Just after you enter the museum, you'll see Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow aboard his galleon. Farther along, you come to Katharine Hepburn and a put-upon Humphrey Bogart aboard the African Queen. Then Arnold Schwarzenegger—as Conan the Barbarian over here and as the Terminator over there.

Los Angeles is big enough, evidently, for only one wax museum, and the Hollywood Wax Museum emerged triumphant when the Movieland Wax Museum was shuttered in 2005. Movieland was the victim of declining attendance, and its 300 figures were scattered into a wax diaspora—some to a museum in South Korea, others to private collections. Quite a few ended up at the Hollywood Wax Museum.

Here's the thing: You can easily tell the Movieland figures from the other, newer ones. They seem less realistic, their "skin" more opaque.

As it turns out, making wax figures really is an art. In the best of circumstances, subjects come in for a studio sitting and more than 100 dimensions of their face are carefully measured with calipers. Then they're photographed from every direction. If the subject can't come to the studio, artists rely on a vast portfolio of photographs.

They then go to work sculpting a bust out of plaster or silicone, which is used to create the mold into which the beeswax (with stabilizing agents) is poured. The Movieland process was different—it seems plaster heads were simply dipped in bees-wax, which makes them look rather more like department store mannequins. A good wax museum needs to be more convincing than that, and perhaps the plaster contributed to its demise.

The freakishly lifelike can be found in abundance at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum at the Venetian in Las Vegas. It's among the newest—it opened in 1999—and most state-of-the-art wax museums and very much befits our era of celebrity and digital cameras. The figures aren't behind glass or roped off—they all stand out in the open, waiting for someone to walk up and embrace them as they would a long-lost friend and then take a picture. There's even a George Clooney wedding chapel, where the ladies don wedding dresses and have their photos taken at the altar with the Sexiest Man Alive.

Part of the appeal of a good wax museum is creating the unsettling sense that you've wandered into a dream, and the dream is someone else's. That mood nears perfection in Las Vegas. You first enter a cavernous room as if strolling into a cocktail party in full swing. Porn star Jenna Jameson greets you topless on a couch in an alcove, and gloomy Gérard Depardieu sulks at a table. Julia Roberts displays her teeth; Joan Rivers looks as small as a gerbil. There's Patrick Stewart and Meryl Streep, and hey!—there's Al Roker with his big goofy smile. Somebody wake me. Please.

The museum's later exhibits are grouped in neat categories—auto racing stars, sports stars, rock stars, movie stars. You can shoot hoops around Shaquille O'Neal and advise Tiger Woods on his putting. There's even an American Idol arena, where visitors can karaoke while being scowled at by Simon Cowell.

On the lower level is the requisite chamber of horrors. These are standard fare at most wax museums and have been since Madame Tussaud's day. In Las Vegas, I was a bit disappointed in the chamber. It features all the usual suspects: Jason, Leatherface, Freddy Krueger. They try to shake things up here with abrupt gunshot sounds and live characters that menace you with faux chain saws. Still…not scary.

The best chamber of horrors was at the Royal London in Victoria. It's a classic, with the focus on man's inhumanity to man, which is truly scary. Over here is the pendulum slicing in two a life-size man trussed up in a pit. Please note that it's slicing him lengthwise, from his head to, well, his lower parts. Over there is the Algerian hook, on which an unfortunate is slowly perishing, impaled by what appears to be a large fishing hook. These are things that revisit you late at night.

As if this isn't frightful enough, you then walk out of the chamber and come face to face with the characters from The Wizard of Oz as "If I Only Had a Brain" plays chirpily in the background. There's genius in this transition. Evil genius, but genius nonetheless.

All four museums are well worth visiting for one reason or another. Do I have a favorite? Well, as you might guess, I'm partial to the one in Victoria, because it feels like a museum of a wax museum, conservative in all the good ways. Maybe Charles Laughton can stay.

And I quite liked Las Vegas for all the technical prowess employed in creating such naturalistic figures. I would have liked more historical personages, I admit, as in San Francisco. And for that matter, the museum could have used more badly rendered characters.

It occurred to me while marveling at the spookily lifelike Princess Diana who stands near the exit at Las Vegas that a large part of the appeal of a wax museum comes in finding fault with the badly done figures, in much the same way that unfortunate bridesmaid dresses can really make a wedding. Las Vegas, alas, was nearly faultless.

The trend is toward perfection—maybe I'll add that to my list of reasons I don't go to wax museums.

Wax in the West

Hollywood Wax Museum 6767 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, Calif., (323) 462-8860, www.hollywoodwax.com. Scenes from movies such as Star Wars, Batman, and Miami Vice re-created.

Madame Tussauds Las Vegas 3377 South Las Vegas Blvd., Ste. 2001, Las Vegas, (702) 862-7800, www.mtvegas.com. Line up a putt with Tiger Woods, marry George Clooney, and, just because it's Vegas, go onstage with Elvis.

Royal London Wax Museum 470 Belleville St., Victoria, B.C., (877) 929-3228, www.waxmuseum.bc.ca. British royalty, a fine Chamber of Horrors, and Charles Laughton.

Steinbeck's Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum 700 Cannery Row, Suite II, Monterey, Calif., (831) 375-3770. Scenes from Monterey's history, including a sardine cannery and John Steinbeck at a café.

The Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf 145 Jefferson St., San Francisco, (800) 439-4305, www.waxmuseum.com. King Tut's tomb, a Hall of Religions, and personages including Fidel Castro, Gandhi, and the Olsen Twins. Show your AAA card and save $5 on adult admission and $2 on child admission.

The Wax Works 250 SW Bay Blvd., Newport, Ore., (541) 265-2206. More than 80 figures, including a Lord of the Rings display.

Photography by Anne Hamersky

This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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