Sunday, May 6, 2018

katherine stubergh, wax artist extraordinaire, and that presidential wax museum in keystone, south dakota

stubergh wax figure
Every time I rounded the bend, there he was, staring at me, his eyes boring a hole right through me. Each time I stopped short, felt taken aback, felt caught out in something. Is he looking at me? Is he still looking at me? If I move … Wait, is he about to call the cops? And then his eyes did not move, would not follow me, and I felt relief. Howard Taft, our nation’s twenty-seventh President and tenth Chief Justice, turned out to be, after all, just another wax figure at the National Presidential Wax Museum.

It was a beautiful day in Keystone, South Dakota (pop. 340), and I was excited to be at the wax museum co-founded by Katherine Stubergh and stocked with many of her waxworks, including the arresting Mr. Taft. One tours the museum in a circular pattern that starts and ends in the gift shop, but rather than exiting to browse the souvenirs, I found myself backtracking time and again—I did not want to leave the quiet marvel of the displays. Teddy Roosevelt, our twenty-sixth President, was a favorite. I wanted to sit down, ask him, hey, what’s that you’re reading?

stubergh wax figure

Lady Bird Johnson was a favorite. She stood behind and slightly off to the side of her husband as he was sworn in as our thirty-sixth President aboard Air Force One that fateful late November. I wondered what her private thoughts might have been.

stubergh wax figure

I also favored Dolley Madison, wife of our fourth President. She was part of a large party scene. That’s her husband in the foreground.

stubergh wax figure

But it wasn’t until I happened upon Ronald Reagan, our fortieth President, chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev, that I realized what a truly exceptional wax artist Katherine Stubergh was. Henry Alvarez, a man who was taught by Stubergh and who became a renowned wax sculptor in his own right, was the creator of Reagan and all subsequent presidents in the museum up until the current one, the forty-fifth, who was created by a chap in England. In these more recent figures I felt a lack, specifically, a lack of softness. Softness was a word I had read or heard somewhere in relation to Stubergh’s waxworks and it came back to me like a bullet. Once past Stubergh’s figures, I realized that to me they had seemed more real, more appealing, and indeed to have had a quality well described as softness.

Stubergh was born in 1911 in San Francisco. Her parents were mannequin makers—she came from a long line of mannequin makers—and one story has it that in 1925 the Stubergh Manufacturing Company was hired by Sid Grauman, of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame, to create wax figures for a new theater in Los Angeles, and thus the Stuberghs came to Hollywood. Katherine, by all accounts a girl with dreams of a career in dance, learned the family art and continued the business until she sold it, in 1970, to Ripley’s International Limited. During those years in Hollywood, Katherine and others in the Stubergh studio made wax figures, as well as figures of other materials, for movies, museums, and individuals. One of the more colorful accounts of who Stubergh was appears in an odd but interesting blog called “Waxipedia.” The piece is a recollection by wax sculptor David Cellitti, who got his start working with Stubergh. He begins:
She was the Madame Tussaud of America. Anyone who was anyone in Hollywood during the 1920’(s), 30’s and 40’s sat for her. When Albert Einstein sat for her she didn’t speak any German and he didn’t speak any English. Yet she said they got along and were able to communicate fine. She took a life mask from Amelia Earhart shortly before the aviator disappeared from the world. W.C. Fields and John Barrymore would show up drunk to the studio situated on Beverly Boulevard in Hollywood because Barrymore thought what she did was so fascinating. Bela Lugosi, Mae West, Mary Pickford and Ginger Rogers were but a few of the actors from Hollywood’s Golden Era that sat for her.
buster keaton life mask
Life mask of Buster Keaton by Katherine Stubergh.
On display at the National Presidential Wax Museum.

I also learned about Stubergh at the museum, which has a couple of display cases devoted to her career and an introductory video that speaks of her. She and her husband and two others started the museum in 1971. According to the museum, it was Stubergh’s dream to start a wax museum devoted to the presidents. She had been involved in starting other wax museums, as well as creating figures for them, and in the article pictured below, which is on display behind glass in Keystone, we learn that “Miss Stubergh’s current ambition is to model the wives of the presidents of the United States for the famous Smithsonian Institute.” Perhaps she just wanted to put some heads on those gowns.

women in wax

One gets the feeling that Stubergh was a woman with a few different ideas and ambitions. (By the way, that’s Stubergh just below “Women in Wax.” Her mother, who also worked in the studio, is probably the woman to our left, holding the baby, who, no doubt, is made of rubber, a stand-in created for some movie. Cellitti wrote that Stubergh had a sardonic sense of humor, and he tells a somewhat funny story about Katherine’s reaction to Mother Stubergh’s passing.) Stubergh and her partners sold the Keystone museum, which has gone by a couple of different names, in the 1980s, and she and her husband moved to Honolulu. In 1996, she died.

One of the more notable Hollywood commissions Stubergh took on was for the wax figures used in the 1953 movie “House of Wax.” Apparently she received no credit for the work when the movie was initially released, but when it came out on Blu-ray in 2013, she got her accolade.

For “Shall We Dance,” a 1937 movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Stubergh created forty-four masks of Ginger Rogers. They were key to the movie’s grand finale, and if you want to know the significance of the masks, I mean, really and truly understand the masks and their meaning, try reading Wendy Doniger’s “The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation.” On its cover are five (or is it six?) of the masks Stubergh created.

Eventually, of course, I had to leave our waxen presidents, enter the gift shop, look for a souvenir to take home. But there was none. Believe it or not, no little wax presidents for sale, no souvenir booklet, no book about waxworks or about Katherine Stubergh, no postcards depicting either the denizens of the museum or Stubergh at work; and wouldn’t this photo of Stubergh and John Barrymore make a nice postcard –

john barrymore

and when I asked the clerk about it—a nice, attentive woman she was—she seemed slightly surprised by what I was looking for. Certainly one could be happy with a bobblehead president …

There is no page for Katherine Stubergh on Wikipedia. She is not mentioned at all in the far-ranging tome “Madame Tussaud and The History of Waxworks.” And when in 1963 Stubergh appeared on the game show “What’s My Line” she stumped the panelists. They had no idea who she was and could not guess what she did. Even after they were told her occupation, they seemed slightly confused.

Although some links are in the body of the post, more are below. If you would like to see more photos of Stubergh’s or Alvarez’ work, I suggest perusing the Hollywood auction catalog. Also, the souvenir booklet for Walter’s International Wax Museum at the New York World’s Fair is superb. The Last Supper, one of Stubergh’s crowning achievements in wax, is pictured there. Stubergh was in New York working on figures for this exhibit when she appeared on “What’s My Line.”

National Presidential Wax Museum
The Museum’s YouTube channel
Waxipedia post on Stubergh
The Wax Figures of Grauman’s Chinese
Works of lifelike art with a horrific ‘House of Wax’
This is the USA Today article that includes the video clip above.
John Barrymore models for sculptress
The Los Angeles Public Library, source of the Stubergh and Barrymore photo. The date is given as September 30, 1941, and the caption as: John Barrymore poses for Katherine Stubergh, the famous Hollywood sculptress for a portrait bust of the actor. It is one of [a] group likeness of the members of the Royal family of theatre. Miss Stubergh will next do Ethel and Lionel on completion of the bust of John. These busts will then be presented to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Which are wax people?
Another photo (with caption) from the files of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Catalog, Hollywood Auction 65
This should open to pages 264-265, which shows lots 749-755. Flip back to Page 259 for info on the items pictured in this section as lots 731-830 are from the estate of Henry Alvarez. The auction was held in October, 2014. Here are the prices the items fetched.
Short Stubergh bio on
What’s My Line? (Dec 15, 1963)
Souvenir booklet, Walter’s International Wax Museum New York World’s Fair 1964-65
At the bottom of this page are links to press releases issued by the Walter’s museum.
This is the second post in a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. The trip encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen, most of it free and much of it—surprisingly—in the form of statues. Next week, what we found on the street corners of Rapid City.