Skip to content

Madame Tussauds’ Terrifying D.C. Presence

Greatness and Gilbert. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)
Greatness and Gilbert. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

The most terrifying thing about the Madame Tussauds D.C. wax museum outpost is the fact that designers grouped ex-Washington Wizard Gilbert Arenas with Babe Ruth and Jesse Owens. Of all the indignities to endure, the Sultan of Swat and the man who showed up Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games have to share a platform with a guy whose claim to fame is bringing a gun to the Wizards’ locker room.  

Madame Tussauds is an international tourist attraction, branching out from its original 19th century London location to far-flung locales such as Las Vegas; Bangkok; Orlando, Fla.; and Washington. The D.C. branch is a mash of American pop culture and politics, with a twist of Washington-specific history. Marilyn Monroe greets you at the entrance, followed by Richard M. Nixon and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a neat encapsulation of what, or whom, people want to see. Norma Jeane and The Rock would fit in at any wax museum or Americana-centric attraction. Nixon? It would’ve been better if it was him and Elvis, aping the iconic photo from the 1970s of the King and the Prez. But no matter. Nixon’s part of America, too.  

It’s the many places Madame Tussauds attempts to mix in things specific to D.C. where things get weird. Arenas, dressed in the bad-old-days Wizards blue, is just the most egregious example.  

Take, for instance, the waxen likeness of grizzled Washington Post scribe Bob Woodward, of young and 1970s-Watergate scandal vintage, sitting on the edge of a news desk, notebook in hand, typewriter off to the side — and not one sign of partner Carl Bernstein. “Wonder who Bernstein pissed off, not to get in here?” asked Warren Rojas, a Roll Call colleague and companion to this descent into waxness.  

What qualifies Madame Tussauds for another
installment of Where Roll Call Dares, an exploration of tourist-related adventures that no self-respecting Washingtonian sees himself or herself committing? For some, it’s the least worst decision available. “My parents were in town, and we had run out of things to do, and my mom had a Groupon,” admitted an acquaintance — a professional woman and native of a large Midwestern city. “I’ve actually been twice,” she added, glumly.  

After paying the entry fee, which ranges from walk-up prices of $21.50 to midweek savers at $13.98, you descend a stairwell to the museum. Above that stairwell is an American Indian, with no explanatory notes, situated before the history-heavy Founding Fathers exhibit. “The Indian, as usual, gets slighted,” Rojas said.  

I had high hopes for Madame Tussauds, if only because of its pedigree and the peculiar grimy notch of pop horror it occupies. Founder Marie Tussaud made her name sculpting wax likenesses in the 18th century before setting up shop in London in the 19th century. She died in 1850, but left a legacy of creepiness behind, exemplified by the museum’s chamber of horrors, exhibits dedicated to criminals and mass murderers, and their victims.  

After passing under the nameless American Indian, Rojas and I caught up with the Founding Fathers. Anyone who paid attention in high school civics class will glean little from the exhibit notes, except perhaps for a bit of lingering British hostility over the Revolutionary War.  

There was James Madison’s quiet, weak voice and George Washington marrying a wealthy widow, for instance. Petty perhaps, but not exactly up there with the disembodied head of Marie Antoinette. Fine. We don’t expect there to be a slot for Ed Gein or Ted Bundy next to the American presidents.  

But even where there is opportunity for a fun bit of macabre theater, Madame Tussauds takes a pass. In a previous visit to a wax museum, long ago as a young child, I got my first visual of Abraham Lincoln’s fateful night at Ford’s Theater. There was the president, along with wife Mary Todd and a wax John Wilkes Booth — pointing a pistol at the Great Emancipator’s head. I don’t even remember specifically where or when this visit was, nor the owner of the establishment, but I remember that scene, a reminder of the power of imagery to scare the bejeezus out of us.  

And what did Madame Tussaud D.C. do with this iconic scene? Put an empty chair next to Old Abe so tourists can snap photos. No Mary Todd. No JWB. No scary memory. Just a nice pic with that guy played by Daniel Day Lewis!  

There is what I’ll call the Chamber of Beards, a rendition of that hirsute epoch of American history when the assembled POTUSes resembled nothing less than a Jayson Werth fan club — Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. Thrown in with the Beard Years is Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts. Why not?  

This is not to say Madame Tussauds is not a crowd pleaser, gauging by the reaction of some fellow wax admirers.  

“He was an alcoholic, but he won the war anyway,” one man sizing up Grant said of the Civil War hero (for the Union anyway).  

“They so real, you don’t know if they people just posing,” one teenager said, coming up on James K. Polk, perhaps admiring the 11th president’s business-up-front, party-in-the-back mullet.  

“Heck of a football player,” the Grant admirer said of President Gerald R. Ford, latching on to the first thing that came to mind about the 38th president, the first man to occupy the Oval Office who had been elected to neither the office of president nor vice president.  

It wasn’t the last indignation a U.S. president endured. “Totally shoved in a corner!” Rojas observed of President George H.W. Bush, who occupied a slot in between a scene of Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl National Anthem performance and an exhibit on presidential pets.  

But perhaps the ultimate slight, as outlined by Rojas, was of a local political legend who is once again enjoying a moment in the sun with the release of a new memoir . “No room for Marion Barry? Mayor for life?” he asked, incredulously. Hizzoner would certainly have made a nice coda as you exit Madame Tussauds, instead of who currently ushers you out: Whoopi Goldberg.  


Related stories:

Georgetown Cupcake; or, the Wait

Tourism Most Fowl: DC Ducks

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.