CULTURE SCHLOCK — By Darren Garnick
Originally published: June 1, 2001
In perhaps the most ludicrous government act since the Nashua City Council outlawed back-to-back yard sales a few years ago, the New York state legislature is exploring the possible eviction of a wax Yasser Arafat from the new Madame Tussaud’s museum in Times Square.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) and 50 of his fellow lawmakers called on the museum to give Yasser the boot solely because of his career choice: terrorism. The demands are largely symbolic because Madame Tussaud’s is a private business and could, if they wanted to, replace Tony Bennett with Ayatollah Khomeini as their official greeter.
Nonetheless, smelling good copy from the New York Post, Hikind and his supporters recently picketed the museum to pressure Gov. George Pataki to cancel a June 14th Republican Party fundraiser scheduled there. Pataki won’t give up his opportunity to charge $100,000 for stuffed mushrooms and cocktail franks. But the governor did say that he would party with non-terrorist wax figures to prove his opposition to evil and his support for goodness.
Here’s what apparently only Madame Tussaud’s understands: wax museums need villains to counterbalance the heroes. Including unsavory characters in these kinds of exhibits is vital. O.J. Simpson belongs in the mix. So does Tonya Harding. And Ivan Boesky. And every Russian leader (who died every two weeks) when Reagan was in power. Toss in the CEOs of tobacco companies.
I visited Madame Tussaud’s the weekend after Assemblyman Hikind’s protest. Well before I got to the world leaders room, I was offended. I was first outraged by the disproportionate representation of New York Yankees. Mickey Mantle… Joe DiMaggio… George Steinbrenner… disgusting. Not a Red Sox cap in the building. Then, there’s Woody Allen, a “comic genius” who gets away with sleeping with his stepdaughter because he made a few good flicks in the 60s and 70s. And perhaps the most offensive of all, Larry King, proof that the devil is swinging deals for journalist souls.
It’s instantly apparent that this wax museum, which attracts far more foreign tourists than Americans, has no interest in making political statements. Why bother rooting for one side, when you can herd bitter rival factions into the same gift shop? If there is any conspiracy, it was forged between the museum and Kodak. This is a Disneyland where the costumed characters don’t take lunch breaks or strike for health benefits.
Madame Tussaud’s is all about pictures.
Scene 1: An Italian visitor instructs his young son how to pose with supermodel Elle McPherson. The boy, whose height placed him at eye level with the wax figure’s chest, instinctively stretches his arm around Ms. McPherson’s shoulders. No good, says the father, shaking his head. He redirects his son’s hand, firmly pressing it on her behind and smiles. Perfect picture. A father-and-son bonding moment.
Scene 2: Indian man eyeing John Travolta. The tourist hands me his digital video camera, a model which no doubt is the most expensive on the market, and inexplicably asks me to record him for “six seconds.” Like Stallone in both the Rocky and Rambo movies, Mr. DigiCamera writes, directs and stars in his own films. “Hi there!” he says, waving at the camera. “I am here with my friend, John Travolta.” Cut. End of shot. No exploration of his fictitious relationship with Mr. Travolta. No references to Olivia Newton-John, Vinny Barbarino or the Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Imagination, unfortunately, does not come with the camera.
Scene 3: Museum visitor getting a little too intimate with jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Oblivious to everyone around him, the man is caressing Armstrong’s teeth. He does so for at least 15 seconds, an amount of time bordering on obsessive (disclaimer: I am not a licensed psychologist). The guards are looking the other way at Princess Diana, the only wax figure in the museum to be surrounded by fancy velvet ropes.
Yasser Arafat needs no bodyguards at Madame Tussaud’s. Most visitors walk right by him, preferring to be photographed with Pope John Paul II or Lady Di. The anti-Arafat crowd has nothing to fear and nothing to gain by his eviction. The wax Yasser is unloved. Nobody wants to fondle his scraggly beard or pinch his terrorist tush.
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column appears every Friday in The Telegraph’s “Encore” magazine. Feedback and ideas are welcome via e-mail at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com.
Culture Schlock Story: “Threatened by Wax?: Arafat deserves museum spot as much as the Penguin or the Riddler.”
BostonHerald.com — “Shedding no tears over the wax Hitler beheading.”