Monday, December 8, 2014

                                                    WAXIPEDIA HALL OF FAME
                                               induction of legendary wax sculptress,
                             Katherine Marie Stubergh-Keller: The American Madame Tussaud

(Katherine with her flawless recreation of Charlie Chaplin - from the STUBERGH COLLECTION)

For most people there are but two names in the history of wax museums and wax arts that matter. One is obviously Madame Marie Tussaud, but the other is the undisputed Queen of American Wax Art, Katherine Stubergh. As we induct this legendary woman into the annals of honor and gratitude that is bestowed upon all those who will enter this 'Hall of Fame' an appropriate history of her is called for. Now I could list off a plethora of facts and figures that would do nothing more then explain the logistics of this grand and complicated lady or I could give her legacy the credit it deserves. What better way to respect her then to have one that knew her and worked with her tell her story.
  David Cellitti is a wonderful man and a talented artist who I have the distinct honor of  having an ever deepening friendship with. He is a wealth of information on wax museum history, having a knowledge that is unchangeable, and worked with and for many of of the 'Legends' that this site strives to honor. On top of all that he is a kind man who's brutal honesty and truthfulness I have found unparalleled. It is my personal goal with the 'WAXIEDIA HALL OF FAME' to paint a biography of more then facts about these great people and it is through 1st person recollections (when possible) that I hope to do just that.
  So, without further delay or ado that I hand the reins to David...

                                      (publicity photo from the STUBERGH COLLECTION)


She was the Madame Tussaud of America. Anyone who was anyone in Hollywood during the 1920’2, 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.

(Katherine with wax figures of Mae West and W.C. Fields - from the STUBERGH COLLECTION)

She provided a stand-in figure of actress Maureen O’Hara for Charles Laughton’s stunt double to rescue in the RKO “Hunchback of Notre Dame”. When producer David O. Selznick used Stubergh figures to add bulk to the wounded soldiers in the famous Atlanta Train Station sequence in “Gone With The Wind” it ended up in a landmark ruling in favor of The Actors Guild stating that if a studio rented a wax figure to stand in for an extra they also had to pay a breathing actor as well!  She provided the figures for “House of Wax”, “Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum”, “Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein” “The Frozen Ghost” and countless other films as well as television.

(production still from 1953's 'House of Wax' - from the STUBERGH COLLECTION)

Yet despite her obvious and remarkable talents as a sculptor, as a young girl, Katherine wanted to be a classical dancer.   It was only until much later in life that she would know the freedom of NOT living where she worked.  She was literally raised and educated in a studio environment.

(a young Katherine having her legs molded by her mother. San Francisco 1925 - from the
She was born into a family that had started as mannequin makers in Germany. Jacob and Katherine Spieles immigrated to America in 1880 and opened The Wax Mannequin Manufacturing Company in New York City.   Up until the turn of the century clothes were always tailor made.  With the advent of Ready To Wear garments the need for something to display them on was born.  Originally mannequins were made with bodies made of wire or Paper Mache with exposed flesh first sculpted then cast in wax.
When she was only 20 Jacob and Katherine sent their daughter Katherine Cecelia Spieles to San Francisco to establish a West Coast branch of the business.  In 1903 Katherine Cecelia married Otto Stubergh and on June 23, 1911 they had a daughter they named Katherine Marie Stubergh.
Otto died in 1923 and in 1926, at the urging of entrepreneur Sid Grauman, they moved the studio permanently to Los Angles, where the studio was to remain and prosper for almost 50 years.

( Aviator Art Goebel sit for sculptress, Katherine Stubergh in Los Angeles, 1928 -  
While it is easy to just catalog Katherine’s many contributions to the entertainment industry (and there are MANY of them) that’s not what sticks with me.  Katherine, weather she knew it or not, acted as a life guide to me.  I, like a lot of people, grew up in a setting we now label “Dysfunctional”.   Katherine’s formal education had been, at best, sporadic.  I don’t think she ever had gone to a public school.  What she knew about life she had learned by books and by her own keen observations about people.  There was a large library in the studio and it was she who first gave me a copy of Voltaire’s “Candide” to read.  “Anything that can happen to a person happens to this character”, she said handing the book to me.  Voltaire wrote “Candide” as a response to a way of thought that was very popular in his day.  What emerged is a quality that is the keynote of all great art.  It zeroed in on an aspect of the human condition that is eternal.  Ages may come and go but the nature of man stays largely consistent.  Katherine told me that book contained all I needed to know about life and she was right.

(production still from 'Mystery of the Wax Museum' of the figure of Voltaire. 1933 -

Katherine also had a very sardonic sense of humor that could surface at the oddest of times.  There was a stereo in the studio, which belonged to Katherine’s second husband, Tom Keller.  Although music was something that was NOT a daily occurrence at the studio it did happen occasionally it always came in the form of a record that Tom decided to play.  His taste was (and I think this is the kindest way of putting it) eclectic.  One day he decided to put on a record by the crooner Jack Jones.   While we all did our best to ignore the sounds emitting from the speakers, Katherine suddenly looked up from her sculpting and calmly announced to no one in particular “You know – if a horse’s ass could sing – that’s what it would sound like.”  After saying this she continued with her sculpting without missing a beat.

(John Barrymore sits for Katherine, 1941 - from the STUBERGH COLLECTION)

Under all this I sensed a great sadness in Katherine.  A person who was to become my longest running lifetime friend was Katherine’s Aunt by Marriage, Lillian, who worked in the studio and also cleaned the apartment that Tom and Katherine shared in Hollywood.  Lillian was 63 when I met here – I was fifteen.  She filled in many of the blanks about Katherine.  I knew Katherine had been married once during the war to a soldier with movie start good looks.  It was my understanding the marriage didn’t last long.  It was Lillian’s opinion that the marriage didn’t stand much of a chance.  I guess Katherine’s mother ruled her life with an iron fist and that spilled over into her private life.  
Lillian told of a time when she and Art, Katherine’s Uncle, came to the studio to visit shortly after the death of Katherine Senior.  There was Katherine blissful smoking a cigarette (something she would NEVER do in front of her mother) remarking how her life was finally her own.  Henry Alvarez, years later after the studio had been sold to Ripley’s International, told me of finding an old Black and White snapshot of Katherine sculpting.  “But I’d rather be dancing” had been inscribed on the back by Katherine.

(photo of Katherine featured in a display on her life and work at the 'National Presidential
Wax Museum in Keystone, South Dakota. The museum originally opened as the 'Shrine
of Democracy Wax Museum' and was designed, built and partially owned by Katherine
  and her husband, Tom)

In spite of my adulation of her, I don’t think Katherine ever really liked me.  When I first went to work for Movieland years later the general manager, Joseph F. Prevratil wrote Katherine for a recommendation.  Months later, long after I had proven myself, Joe asked me to come to his office.  “How were things left between you and Katherine Stubergh?”  
 “Fine, as far as I know” I replied.  Katherine was retired and living with Tom in Hawaii by then.
“You asked about David Cellitti”, she had written him.  “David was a charming young man with no talent.”  
I was crestfallen.  The words of my idol hit my gut like a hurtling 2X4.

The truth is I was really a mess when Katherine knew me.  My parents were going through a very violent divorce.  By the time I went to work for them after high school (1969) I was a full-blown drugged out Hippie. Who and what I was to become later on in life, Katherine never got to witness.  Not getting the love and approval from the people I wanted it from the most is a theme that has followed me through most of my life.  I know Katherine never really understood my adulation of her, if anything I think she found it irritating.  She HATED horror movies, horror figures and thought they were a waste of time. “Anybody can make something horrible,” she would say with disdain.  “It takes a real artist to make something beautiful.”

(Katherine's beautiful recreation, in wax, of Leonardo Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper'

If I had to make a list of the people who influenced me the most in my life, Katherine would certainly be one it.  She was a unique individual, not just a fine artist.  Her take on life was impeccable and she taught me things that I still carry around today.  She may not have been fond of me, but she was my hero growing up.  Certainly one of the most amazing individuals I have ever known."

- David Cellitti

(Katherine with Charlie Chaplin - from the STUBERGH COLLECTION)

(The sadly short-lived 'Motion Picture Museum and Hall of Fame' was developed by Katherine's Mother and stood as a precursor to the legendary 'Movieland Wax Museum' -
from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

(The elder Katherine and her daughter working on the original version of her legendary 'THE LAST SUPPER' recreation for the Santa Cruz Memorial Park, April 23, 1954. - from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

(press photo from 'Walter's International Wax Museum' that showed at the 1964-1965 New York 
World's Fair. - from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

( Sculptress Katherine Stubergh of Los Angeles has an unusual assignment. She makes babies for the movies. Because of a stringent California law, infants can remain before the camera and lights for only a very short period. For instance, a 4-weeks-old baby can only remain for a period of 30 seconds, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. In order to lengthen the shooting time, Miss Stubergh makes exact replicas of the babies to be used in the films. The bodies of the model babies are made of a rubber substance and are of the finest detail. Miss Stubergh proudly displays a group of her model babies on Nov. 4, 1955, which range in age from 4 weeks to 10 months. - 

(two pre-opening press photos showing wax figures made for Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, California by Katherine. Figures include {photo 1} Charlie Chaplin, Jean Harlow, Wallace Berry and Marie Dressler and {photo 2} Rudolf Valentino and Jean Harlow. -
from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

(Katherine stands with a completed figure of Charlie Chaplin, from the movie 'Modern Times'. August 13, 1935 - from the STUBERGH COLLECTION)

(production still from 'Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum' 1940. - from the private collection 
                      of Timothy Randall)

( production still from 'House of Wax' 1953 - from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

(figures of World War II leaders created by Katherine, during the height of the war to help sell War Bonds. - from the STUBERGH COLLECTION).

( a display from the 'Luis Tussaud's English Wax Museum' that was located along Atlantic City, New Jersey's famous Boardwalk. The museum featured an entire collection sculpted by Katherine and her staff. Here is the scene based on Dolly Madison's saving of the famous painting of George Washington as the White House is burning. - from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

( the entry to the 'Tussaud's Wax Museum' that was designed by Katherine. The museum ran the span of the Century 21 Exposition (1962 Seattle World's Fair) and featured dozens of wax figures from both history and Hollywood. This museum, through the illegal actions of it's original owner (who rented/bought the figures from Katherine) was responsible for the creation of both the 'Hollywood Wax Museum' and the 'Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf'. 
- from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

(guidebook cover for the 'Hawaiian Wax Museum' that was both owned and developed by Katherine and her Husband. - from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

(among the many projects Katherine was responsible for was the development of the 'Southwestern Historical Wax Museum' that was located at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas. Here is a photograph of 'Stars of Texas' and a postcard of General Douglas MacArthur. - from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

(from the 'National Presidential Wax Museum' comes several scenes and figures screated by one-time co-owner, Katehrine Stubergh. Of special note: The Union Soldier, who stand between Generals
Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant is none other then Katherine's own husband, Tom Keller. 
- from the private collection of Timothy Randall)

Katherine Marie Stubergh-Keller: The American Madame Tussaud

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