Earl Dorfman, made heads of noted figures

March 19, 1995|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Earl Dorfman, one of the nation's expert makers of plastic-like historical figures and a designer of museums, died Monday of pneumonia at Lorien Medical Center in Columbia. He was 78.

The resident of the Villa Nova section of Baltimore County had been semiretired since 1982.

In 1957, he founded Wax Museum Enterprises and Dorfman Museum Figures in a building at Guilford Avenue and Federal Street, where the firm remains.

The business, now operated by his son Rob Dorfman, has an inventory of 700 stock heads, including several of its founder.

At the business, on racks lining the walls are molds bearing the likenesses of some of history's most famous heads -- Abraham Lincoln and George Washington being the most popular, but also including Adam and Eve, Christopher Columbus, President Clinton and Elvis Presley.

Rob Dorfman estimated that his father made some 5,000 figures that are in 15 American museums, including ones in Plymouth, Mass., New York, Lancaster and Gettysburg, Pa., Harpers Ferry, W. Va., Natural Bridge, Va., and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Earl Dorfman believed that most wax museums had blood and gore as their themes. He chose instead to have his figures placed in institutions where visitors, especially children, could learn history.

"Earl's figures made you think that you were actually sitting with Lincoln or were at Plymouth Rock," said Paul Cordish, a friend for 50 years. "He wasn't just another figure-maker in the field. He was the field. He created it."

Describing himself as a "backyard chemist and lifelong putterer," Mr. Dorfman conducted experiments on his kitchen stove with vinyl plastisol and discovered that it was more resilient and durable than wax and that figures made with the substance were more lifelike.

His figures have human hair, dentures and glass eyes, giving them a chillingly real appearance.

Rob Dorfman described his father as a "poor man's Alfred Hitchcock."

Like the great Hollywood film director, Mr. Dorfman is a figure in some of the museums he designed -- a sleeping painter, a security guard, a sea captain, a soldier of fortune, said his son.

Reared in New York City, Earl Dorfman studied architecture and commercial art at Pratt Institute. After several years as a window display manager at Hecht Co. in Washington, he moved to Baltimore in the early 1950s and repaired mannequins for Dorothy Lynch Co., which he later bought.

In 1955, Frank L. Dennis, a former deputy chief of the United States Information Agency, hired him to help design the National Historic Wax Museum in Washington, which now is closed.

Other museums that Mr. Dorfman designed included those in Harpers Ferry, Lancaster and Gettysburg.

He later was joined in the business by his wife of 51 years, the former Norma Robinson, who was a research assistant, textile artist and costume maker.

Mr. Dorfman also painted in watercolors and was a member of the Maryland Watercolor Society and the Maryland Yacht Club.

No service was held.

In addition to his son, he is survived by two other sons, Thomas Dorfman of Baltimore and Peter Dorfman of Las Cruces, N. M.

Memorial donations may be made to Childreach, 155 Plan Way, Warwick, R.I., 02878.

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