Patients all get better at this hospital

OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLLS

February 03, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson

"Dr. Toby" probed the shattered skull and splintered leg carefully. Her prognosis for recovery: "excellent."

But before the patient, named Scootles, recovers fully, "Dr. Toby," Marian Tobesman Gross, will invoke her diverse skills as surgeon, dentist, optometrist, hairdresser, seamstress, designer and, above all, artist.

Scootles, a 1940s resin composition doll belonging to Mrs. Gross' sister, was the inspiration for Milky Way Doll Hospital in 1986. But other "patients" have claimed her time, delaying Scootles' recovery as other dolls have returned to the world fresh-faced and in new clothes.

Mrs. Gross, 53, who began training as an illustrator at age 8 at the Maryland Institute of Art, said minor doll repair was a hobby while she ran an antiques and needle-craft business.

Mrs. Gross, whose license tag reads DOLLDOC, said she went commercial after a doll hospital "wanted so much more to repair [her sister's doll] than it was worth that I said I'd do it myself."

"But as soon as I opened to the public I got so much business so quickly that I still haven't gotten to my sister's doll," Mrs. Gross said, adding, "but she hasn't finished the embroidered tablecloth she promised me, so we're even."

Most dolls are toys, and little girls in tears bring their favorites in for emergency repairs. But doll repair is serious business, especially with antique dolls, some 100 years old, which can be worth hundreds of dollars, Mrs. Gross said.

"There are two kinds of dolls, investment dolls and love dolls," she said.

"Investment dolls are older dolls that appreciate in value because of their age, rarity and condition. They are a good investment today for collectors. Love dolls are handed down from generation to generation in families and are treasured," she said. "They have been played with and loved."

Both types are sometimes under the weather, and enough people want them restored to health that 20 to 25 doll patients await an appointment with Dr. Toby at any time, and she has had as many as 70 awaiting treatment.

Normally, business slacks off after Christmas, "but this year they have just kept coming," she said.

Dolls, their display, care and repair, dominate her northwest Baltimore home, from the Bear's Den on the first floor, which is heavy on teddy bears, to the costume room on the second, which is packed with the ribbons, beads, fabrics, feathers and furbelows that go into doll clothes.

Filing cabinets are stuffed with illustrations and patterns, and the room has its share of the hundreds of books on dolls and costumes that occupy shelves in nearly every room.

Dolls and stuffed animals of every size and description are everywhere, from the Noid who makes your pizza cold to Spanish flamenco dancers with delicately painted faces and long lacy dresses, and Mrs. Gross' favorite Star Trek characters and ma-ma dolls.

"I love organized confusion," she said. "I work best that way."

The confusion became so organized that she worked herself right out of the house and into the hospital, a 10- by 14-foot utility shed behind it.

As the intricacy of the repair work grew so did her requirements for equipment, borrowed from other specialties and adapted to her needs.

"I use leather-work tools, automotive tools, dental and surgical // tools, electronic tools. All sorts of paints, glues and adhesives. Anything that will get the job done," she said.

Her specialty is repairing the composition dolls that were popular from the turn of the century until plastic took over in the late tTC 1940s. Made from a mixture of glue, resin, sawdust and lime, they are susceptible to water and heat damage and in some cases insects, which actually consume the composition, leaving only a shell of paint.

She shows before and after photographs of a Scootles doll -- a duplicate of her sister's -- that she said took more than a year to restore. The contrast is dramatic.

"A lot of these composition dolls come in such bad condition that you'd say toss them in a dump. I don't; but some are a real challenge because every company used a different recipe and they respond differently to paint and glue," she said. "Sometimes I have to do a job over two or three times until I get it just right. I'm always learning -- new techniques, new methods, new tools."

Most doll owners, particularly with antique dolls, insist on authentic repairs, such as porcelain or bisque heads or original fabrics. Reproductions are available but the search for original parts can extend across the country and add substantially to the time and expense of repairs, Mrs. Gross said.

Most new doll costumes cost between $35 and $65 but can be more depending on the fabric and the intricacy. As a new service, Mrs. Gross charges $135 to replicate a woman's wedding gown on an 18-inch doll. "It takes a lot more time to do those," she said.

Mrs. Gross said she left Maryland Institute at 14 and worked her way through the Eastern High School art curriculum with jobs at display companies, work she continued for years afterward.

She recalls with a smile that "when I made the papier-mache angels for the Christmas display at Mondawmin in 1956, I made them all with two left feet. I screwed up, but no one knew but us, and nobody said anything."

So far, no doll repair has exceeded her ability, she said. But she has refused jobs where the repair cost far outweighed the doll's value.

Some jobs are harder than others and her most technically difficult request came from a Michael Jackson fan who had one of the earliest representations of the singer.

The doll had short hair and the woman wanted a long-haired wig to match Mr. Jackson's updated appearance.

"I did it but it was really difficult, making all those little curls. But I learned from it so now I could do it again," Mrs. Gross said.

"I learn something new from each job. That's what keeps it so interesting."

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