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Madame Tussauds ready for Hollywood close-up

 A wax figure of actor Clint Eastwood is seen at Madame Tussauds Hollywood during a press preview June 11, 2009. The $55 million wax museum attraction is set to open August 1. REUTERS/Fred Prouser - Reuters
A wax figure of actor Clint Eastwood is seen at Madame Tussauds Hollywood during a press preview June 11, 2009. The $55 million wax museum attraction is set to open August 1. REUTERS/Fred Prouser
— image credit: Reuters

By Laura Isensee

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Clint Eastwood has holed up on Hollywood Boulevard waiting for John Wayne and busloads of visitors to join him, as Madame Tussauds prepares to open its latest wax museum in the tourist mecca this summer.

The $55 million complex, featuring more than 100 celebrity waxworks spread across three floors, is the biggest attraction to join the teeming thoroughfare in years.

It also represents the latest attempt to restore some glamour to the faded area, whose 10 million annual visitors make it one of the world's busiest tourist attractions.

While Hollywood conjures up images of beautiful movie stars and fabulous wealth, the neighborhood itself offers an awkward mix of must-see sites like the Walk of Fame and Grauman's Chinese Theater juxtaposed with tawdry souvenir stores and costumed characters hustling tourists for money.

A decade ago, the area was much worse and gang-related crime was rampant. But since 2000, $700 million of public money has been poured into the area, which in turn has attracted $5.5 billion of private investment, according to Los Angeles city officials.

"To be very blunt, it was a rough area ... Hollywood has come back as a really viable and competitive tourist destination," said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

Key to the comeback has been the Hollywood & Highland shopping mall, which opened in 2001. It houses the Kodak Theater where the Oscars are handed out.

Madame Tussauds will attempt to depict Hollywood's glamorous side when it opens on August 1 on the site of a former parking lot adjacent to Grauman's, the movie theater famed for the imprints of stars' hands and feet on its concrete tiles.

A red carpet, flashing cameras and Joan Rivers' gravity-defying likeness -- complete with microphone in hand -- will greet visitors.

They can join an A-list party with stars like Jennifer Lopez, pose with old Hollywood icons like Charlie Chaplin and even give an awards speech, projected on a screen, in front of Oscar-winner Meryl Streep.

"It's all about immersing yourself, getting into the scene with the figure and feeling like you've met them," said Paul Williams, creative director of Madame Tussaud's U.S. locations.

Rachel and Scott Brown, newlyweds from Houston, echoed that sentiment as they took a picture with Arnold Schwarzenegger's hand- and footprints on Thursday. "You just feel a closeness to them because they've been here," Rachel Brown said.

Madame Tussauds' flagship museum has been one of London's top tourist draws since the 19th century, thrilling visitors with such exhibits as the Chamber of Horrors even as guide books like Lonely Planet decreed it "unbelievably kitsch and terribly overpriced."

Madame Tussauds branched out to the United States in 1999 with a museum in Las Vegas, and there are also sites in New York City and Washington D.C. as well as in Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

The Hollywood museum has been in the works for eight years, said Adrian Jones, a general manager at Midway Attractions, a division of Merlin Entertainments Group, the closely held parent of Madame Tussauds as well as other themed attractions.

Even as the project opens during hard economic times, he expects that it will eventually outdraw its Las Vegas location, which brings in almost 600,000 visitors a year.

(Reporting by Laura Isensee, editing by Dean Goodman)

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