Body Building Is His Business

June 21, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

Robert Dorfman doesn't need a mirror to see that he's aging. All he has to do is look at the dapper fellow next to him.

Mr. Dorfman is the heavier of the two. He has a ring on his right pinky. But those are the only noticeable differences.

Both are balding. Their beards are gray. Their clothes are identical. But Mr. Dorfman still looks older.

He is the 44-year-old head of a Baltimore company that makes lifelike human figures for museums. His counterpart is one of his plastic and polyurethane-foam creations.

"Can you do something about taking 10 pounds off me, 15 maybe?" Mr. Dorfman asks.

His somewhat slimmer companion has become the symbol of Dorfman Museum Figures, whose clients range from the Smithsonian to the Carroll County Farm Museum.

To his dismay, the figure also has become a yardstick for measuring the passage of time.

"I'm normally not aware of aging," Mr. Dorfman says. "But I'm kind of forced to confront it because the figure doesn't [age]."

He had the figure of himself made 12 years ago as an advertising tool. He got the idea from his father, Earl, who founded the business in 1957.

Earl Dorfman had created window displays for the Hecht Co. and repaired mannequins on his own.

That led to a job at the now-defunct National Historical Wax Museum in Washington, creating the scenes, building the figures and serving as the first general manager.

He designed and supplied the figures for about 15 wax museums in all. One of the figures was of himself asleep.

Robert Dorfman recalls that his father, now retired, left an unfinished area in each of the museums. He created a scene using the figure of himself dressed as a painter, sound asleep on the job.

Visitors reacted with double takes.

"Sometimes they'd realize it was a scene," Robert Dorfman says. "Sometimes they wouldn't."

Double takes, and worse, confronted Mr. Dorfman after he had his figure made.

Twice, while transporting the figure in his car's back seat "like a dead stiff," he says, he was pulled over by police officers suspecting foul play. Following the explanations, the officers drove off, smiling.

One hot day at the Columbia Mall, he left his car in the parking lot, its windows rolled up, the figure in the back seat covered in clear plastic. When he came out, four or five people, including a policeman, were standing next to his car.

"They weren't smiling," Mr. Dorfman says. "They thought there was a dead person in the car."

You get a similar, eerie feeling touring his cluttered studio on the fifth floor of an old industrial building at Federal Street and Guilford Avenue.

The doors creak. The wooden floors creak. On racks along the walls hang about 700 heads.

They are hairless. They have no eyeballs; yet they seem to be staring.

The presidents are here. So are Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Martha Washington, Francis Scott Key, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Rosa Parks, Bill Cosby, Elvis Presley and John Wayne.

Thomas Edison gazes across the room at Albert Einstein. Patrick Henry seems to be whispering to George Harrison.

A life-size George Bush stands in front of four FDR heads. Nattily dressed in a navy blazer, red tie, white shirt, gray slacks and black shoes, Bush stares at the blank face of Al Capone.

Boxes contain arms and hands. A figure in a flannel nightgown is headless.

Nathaniel Parker doesn't like being alone in the studio, even though he has worked here 30 years. Mr. Parker, 53, makes molds of the hands and heads, and actually builds the figures.

"I cover them over so they won't be looking so real," he says. "Somebody downstairs might close the elevator door, or somebody next door might drop something.

"You'll look up and see one of these figures. It gives you a good jolt, you know."

His reaction, after all these years, mystifies him.

"Why should you be afraid of something you made?" he asks. "And something that doesn't move? At least none of these have moved yet."

Mr. Parker is one of two full-time employees on Mr. Dorfman's staff. The other is Penny Clifton, who has worked here four years.

She's not scared of the figures.

"It's when the people come up that I get scared," she says, laughing.

Mr. Dorfman employs artists on a free-lance basis to help make the figures. A couple of different sculptors fashion the heads in clay. Mr. Parker makes molds of the heads and casts them in plastic.

An artist paints the faces in his studio. Another craftsman implants the hair -- human hair -- one strand at a time.

Mr. Dorfman buys prosthetic eyes.

"We get them from the same place you'd get yours if you lost an eye," he says.

Ms. Clifton puts in the eyes, styles the hair and does other detail work. Mr. Parker builds the bodies out of lightweight polyurethane foam reinforced with wood and fiber glass, metal rods, plates and swivel joints.

A. T. Jones and Sons on Howard Street provides the costumes.

The entire process takes three to six months.

One life-size, costumed figure costs about $4,000.

Mr. Dorfman has sold figures to museums large and small.

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