|By Eric C. Rodenberg
NEWARK, Ohio — When Mae West spoke, nearly everyone took notice.
In 1937, when the inimitable Ms. West was posing for a figure of herself in wax, created by a 16-year-old aspiring dancer, she reportedly quipped, “Kid, anybody who can make a piece of mud look like me shouldn’t be no dancer.”
Teenager Katherine Marie Stubergh listened. And for the next 40 years she created portraits of nearly every prominent person in the motion picture industry as well as contemporary and historical figures. More than a decade after her death she is considered a legend among wax artists.
Not that young Miss Stubergh was starting from “square one.” Her mother, also named Katherine, was an acclaimed pioneer of wax portraiture. Her grandparents had immigrated to New York in 1880, establishing the first “wax works” company in the United States.
It was the young girl’s mother, Katherine Cecelia, who in 1900, at the age of 20, moved to San Francisco to create the western branch of her father’s company. By the 1920s, the Stuberghs, mother and daughter, were deeply immersed in the motion picture industry. Many of their creations, such as the wounded soldiers in the railroad scene in the movie Gone with the Wind, or the gypsy figure of Maureen O’Hara in Charles Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, can be seen as cinema backdrops yet today.
Within a larger part of cinema history, the Stuberghs produced figures for all purposes, from crude dummies used in movie mob scenes to detailed life-size figures.
During the early years of Hollywood, the Stuberghs became so popular that celebrities – such as Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Jean Harlow and, even Albert Einstein and Howard Hughes – “sat” for their portraits. These celebrities were given what the artists called a “Live Blast,” where the subjects would lie on a table and have a mask fitted to the contours of their face.
Afterwards, they would “sit” while details were finely sculpted into the “mask.” It is unquestionably the most “life-like” method of producing near perfect portraits.
“The Stuberghs had a working relationship with many famous people,” said Herby Moore, who bought many of the Stubergh’s early pieces for the Cave City Wax Museum he opened in 1969. “The legend of their business, and just the work they did drew a lot of those people to them. They were just exceptional artists, and their work was known from around the world.”
On May 19, Apple Tree Auction Center in Newark will sell more than 65 of these pieces created by Katherine Marie Stubergh Keller.
Not only do the wax sculptures have historical significance, according to David Schnaidt, co-owner of Apple Tree; they are now truly one-of-a-kind pieces.
“As I understand it, these were commissioned pieces,” Schnaidt said. “One would be given to the person who sat for the piece, the other one Katherine kept.”
In the majority of cases, Schnaidt said, the other piece of the pair has been lost to history. Attempts to find the matching Chaplin, Disney, Harlow, Hughes and Einstein Live Blast pieces have been unsuccessful, he said.
“Many of the pieces – like the Jean Harlow and the Albert Einstein are breathtaking,” claimed a consignor. “They look like they could just get up and walk away. The glass eyeballs, themselves said to cost $4,000 in Hollywood when they were made, are just piercing.”
The work of the 16-year-old girl who would become Katherine Stubergh Keller, the legendary wax artist, is incontestably revered. At the same time, according to Moore who was to become good friends with the artist, she was a generous businesswoman who proffered a helping hand to her clients.
“She and everyone else at the studio in Los Angeles were always more than helpful,” Moore said. “They were always there to give you their ’props.’ She came to the museum, and we visited several times. They were just good people.”
When Moore purchased the Charlie Chaplin figure, the artist told him she was sending him something special.
“I remember getting a package from Katherine and inside was Charlie Chaplin’s cane. She said he had given it to her … it was the one he used in his movie, Little Tramp,” Moore said. “There was also a bowler – a hat – in the box, but I don’t know whether she said he used that in the movie, or not.”
Those will also be auctioned.
On one side of the cane, according to Schnaidt, are the initials “CC LT 1936,” indicating “Charlie Chaplin, Little Tramp, 1936, the date of the movie.
An identical cane recently sold at Julien’s Auction in Beverly Hills for $50,000, Schnaidt said.
Included in the auction is a life-size grouping of The Last Supper, meticulously modeled after the painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
“There were five sets of these created by Stubergh over several decades, only two survive,” Schnaidt said. “The figures each have over 60,000 individual human hairs. The detail of her work is amazing.”
The other remaining set, according to the consignor, is in Texas where – although considered “irreplaceable” – is insured for half a million dollars.
An investment group from Kentucky, according to Schnaidt, is consigning the pieces from the Cave City Wax Museum. About two years ago, the group bought the museum and its contents from a couple who had owned the museum during the past 20 years.
Moore, the founder of the museum, had sold it in 1982 after experiencing financial difficulty.
“The museum took off like a ball of fire,” said the 83-year-old Moore. “But, being a young fellow at the time, I thought I would build another tourist piece – what was a typical working early country community – down the road. That didn’t go so well. Even though more than a million people a year were going down the road a year to see Mammoth Cave, that other place didn’t do so well.
“I held onto it for 11 years, and we were losing $100,000 a year. Finally, I had to let it all go. I sold it all at auction, the wax museum and the other as working businesses to pay off the bank – to clear my debts. In hindsight, I should have just kept at the museum and not gone into the other venture. But, that’s what happens. Sometimes younger businessmen, like I was, take unnecessary risks.”
Many of the museum pieces have not been moved since they were brought into the museum. “They’re in excellent condition,” Schnaidt said. “There are a lot of wax museums, and wax figures throughout the country, but I learned right away that anytime you mention the name ’Stubergh,’ people sit up and take notice.”
There are antiques, as well, from the museum inventory that will be offered for auction. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, before Moore opened the museum, he purchased a great number of antiques to use as “authentic props.” Among these are a 1933 Rolls Royce (in which he displayed wartime English Prime Minister Winston Churchill exiting), and an 18th century desk with provenance connecting it to Samuel Washington a brother of the “Father of our Country.”