Ogla Irizarry cut the cuffs off her father’s pants and fashioned clothes for her dolls. That stopped after her father realized his daughter was creating high-water pants.
She was just 10 years old but knew her family of six in Puerto Rico couldn’t afford material. Her next sewing project, a long white gown for her sweet 16 birthday, won first prize in her home economics class. Her family didn’t have the money for a traditional quinceanera celebration but sewing became more than a hobby.
Irizarry still sews every day but now she does it for a living. The head seamstress and coordinator of Ripley Entertainment’s art department leads a team of eight who do everything from designing, molding and sculpting to creating the hair, makeup and clothing for the figures at Ripley’s 95 attractions in 12 countries.
During her 21 years at Ripley, Irizarry has designed everything from a hip-hop outfit for a replica of the world’s tallest man, 8’11” Robert Wadlow, to a jacket made of 350 salmon skins, which was a retirement gift for one of the company’s executives.
“I love the challenge,” said Irizarry, who has a bachelor’s degree in math. “I love all things retro and creating the costumes is like figuring out a puzzle.”
Each of her employees share similar stories and insist they are following their creativity and passion.
Bruce Miller, lead artist who has worked for Ripley for 15 years and has designed sets and figures for Epcot and Universal Orlando, said he loves coming to work because every day is different.
“We all have Peter Pan syndrome and never want to grow up,” said Miller, who began sculpting Halloween masks in his dorm at the Columbus College of Art and Design. “I feel like a chef creating vats of wax that evolve into something interesting.”
“He (Miller) can literally make anything,” said Edward Meyer, vice president of exhibits and archives at Ripley Entertainment.
The 60-year-old said he had been fascinated with faces and characters since watching the Planet of the Apes movie in 1968. He was also transfixed by watching the animatronics at Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents in 1971, its opening year.
Miller said his strangest creation was of Maria Jose Cristerna, known as Vampire Woman for her permanent fangs, head to toe tattoos and Teflon horns implanted under her skin. His oddest assignment was to fly to Grand Prairie, Texas to repair President Barrack Obama’s ears, which had been touched too many times. His go-to patch is Super Glue because it sets fast.
The art department at our corporate office doesn’t just create figures for Louis Tussaud’s Palace of Wax and odditoriums but also make props, custom work and theming for our attractions, said Brian Relic, vice president of design and development.
“They’re a great resource, the team is flexible and can juggle assignments, and they all perform top quality professional work,” Relic said.
Osiris Rivera’s resume includes working as a make-up man for Grinchmas at Universal Orlando, the Orange County Medical Examiner and Baldwin-Fairchild Funeral Home. Believe it or not, his father named him after the Egyptian god of the dead and took him to see the Friday the 13th movie at age 4.
The 40-year-old does make-up, molds, sculpts and paints. He’s currently putting the finishing touches on Jimmy Kimmel’s figure, unusual because the comedian is sitting behind a desk rather than standing.
“This is my happy place,” said Ashli Szymanski as she fashions a face for a wax figure of Jennifer Lawrence. “I get to do what I love every day. I am blessed.”
Lawrence’s figure is tough because the actress’ face and hair have changed so much during her movie rolls. Szymanski does hours of research comparing photos and meticulously measuring the millimeters between the character’s eyes, so every detail is accurate. The glass eyes are medical quality prosthetics, and each figure costs about $20,000 to create.
“People never realize how much work goes into each figure,” said Szymanski, who spends about three months crafting each face. She’s also constantly updating figures. She had to add more wrinkles and weight to Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
Katherine Rodriguez adds the final touches to the figures. She was braiding 40-inch dreadlocks for Vampire Woman, one of the most popular figures for selfies in Ripley’s 32 odditoriums. Rodriguez takes a needle and punches in each human hair into the silicon wax head. She compares the task to weaving a rug.
The 26-year said she loves science and crafting but “never thought I’d be paying my bills with it.”