Wax on: a journey into the new Madame Tussauds San Francisco

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You probably won’t win any staring contests inside the new Madame Tussauds that opened June 26 at Fisherman’s Wharf. (Besides, I wouldn’t recommend holding prolonged eye contact with any of the wax figures, especially the Nicolas Cage one.) Like the youngest sibling in the shadow of brothers and sisters who have already established themselves, the SF branch — the fifth North American branch — tries to make a name for itself by flaunting its individuality whenever it’s convenient. Its attempt showcases eerily lifelike figures of well-known San Franciscans in themed rooms.

The museum’s main selling point is the Harvey Milk figure, which successfully presents itself as a thoughtful tribute. His nephew Stuart Milk had the privilege of unveiling his uncle’s wax figure to press less than an hour before the museum’s opening. The moment the red curtain fell — days before this year’s Pride Weekend — we stepped into a scene from 1978’s SF Pride, where Harvey parks himself on the roof of a car, clutching a handmade sign proclaiming “I’m from Woodmere, N.Y.” Stuart himself lauded the authenticity of the wax figure down to the shabby state of the shoes, as he said Harvey was quite frugal then. 

Later during the tour, I learned that Madame Tussauds’ team painstakingly pays attention to every possible detail. Apparently, the artists place the wax figures’ hair in place one strand at a time (!) and strive for complete accuracy — I was assured that if someone had a wrinkle on their face, it’d reappear in the exact same spot on their doppelgänger’s face. After examining the stubble on a baseball player’s face (even though it seemed to give him a slightly ashen complexion), I was convinced of the employee’s claims.

Madame Tussauds stresses how visitors can get up close and personal with the figures. Even the wallpaper of Harvey Milk’s room underscores this point, as it depicts a crowd of participants banding together with Harvey in his fight for gay rights. Props sit on the sidelines so you don’t have to. Grab a bullhorn or a sign that reads “Free to be” in big block letters and join Harvey.

Admittedly, it’s clear the museum tries to capitalize on its location — isn’t that how you stay in business at Fisherman’s Wharf? Yes, there’s a room to commemorate 1967’s Summer of Love, complete with Janis Joplin beside a psychedelic Volkswagen van and Jerry Garcia. But it quickly gets cramped. The room also includes a replication of the famous Haight Street fishnet stocking legs (just if you forgot you were in the middle of tourist territory), and interestingly enough, a Chinese New Year parade commemoration that feels out of place. Here, it begins to get a little gimmicky. The Spirit of San Francisco room slightly redeems itself by featuring the Golden Gate Bridge at two moments in its history — its current likeness and the construction process (complete with engineer Joseph Strauss).

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t quite make the cut for the Spirit of San Francisco room. He’s relegated to the same floor, however. In his trademark hoodie, he sits cross-legged and barefoot in a chair, enjoying some downtime even though he’s almost rubbing elbows with wax figure Barack Obama and his Oval Office reproduction. The iconic Apple logo is noticeably absent from what must be Zuck’s Macbook Pro. (Curiously enough, his sandals still sport the Adidas logo. Go figure.) 

“He’s been very popular with selfies,” said Adrea Gibbs, general manager of Madame Tussauds San Francisco. Our press preview ran a little overtime and members of the public had already entered by the middle of our tour, getting cozy with the wax figures. And to accommodate visitors who have qualms about awkwardly-angled photos taken at arm’s length, employees are quick to offer assistance. I saw only one visitor attempt to take a selfie, but it wasn’t too crowded yet. Give it some time.

The appeal of the remainder of the museum, however, quickly dwindled for me. Madame Tussauds San Francisco — the youngest sibling again — falls short of differentiating itself. It’s likely that most of the wax figures, including Lady Gaga, George Clooney, Audrey Hepburn, and E.T., will feel right at home in another branch somewhere across the world from San Francisco. (Although it did feel like I was supposed to be in Lincoln Park when the Golden Gate Bridge, as part of the wallpaper behind Tiger Woods, caught my eye.)

Apart from the Spirit of San Francisco room, there’s nothing that feels quite as put together elsewhere in the museum. Sure, Madame Tussauds does a fine job of creating interactive props to accompany the other wax figures and to entertain visitors. And marketing-wise, I suppose it only makes sense to include a variety of figures to appeal to a broad audience. Adult admission stands at a somewhat steep price and in this economy, attendees want to get enough bang for their buck. A visit to the new Madame Tussauds, however, is best saved for those who don’t think twice about wearing shorts to Fisherman’s Wharf in the middle of a San Franciscan summer.

Madame Tussauds San Francisco

Open daily at 10am, $16-$26

145 Jefferson, SF

www.madametussauds.com/SanFrancisco/