Giving 'model' patients makeovers and surgery Mannequins: Dummies are given nose jobs, limb repairs and 'life' at Mannequin Service Co. in Canton.

March 17, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Lania D'Agostino, one of Baltimore's busiest plastic surgeons, works in a dirty, dusty studio on Canton's waterfront. She operates without anesthesia, without her clients' consent and without a medical degree.

Her patients are all dummies. They have to be to seek her expertise.

D'Agostino makes her living improving the appearances of manhandled mannequins and creating new ones for a diverse clientele -- from backyard gardeners to museum curators.

Her shop, on the fourth floor of the old Broom Factory on Boston Street, is a cluttered cross between a warehouse and the laboratory of a mad scientist. Every nook and cranny of the 3,000-square-foot space is filled with lifeless models and plaster limbs in need of repair.

"When I was younger, I studied sculpture. This seemed like a natural extension of that," said D'Agostino, 40, who moved to Baltimore from Michigan in 1982 to attend Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Her career with dummies began more than a decade ago, when she was a cash-strapped college student. In the beginning, D'Agostino worked for the founders of what is now Mannequin Service Co. When they retired in 1986, D'Agostino continued the business.

Over the years, the company that was started in a long-abandoned chicken shack has grown into a business that repairs hundreds of mannequins each year, for department stores across the country and as far as England and France.

If you've ever been to Bloomingdale's, Hecht's, Macy's or Sears, you've probably seen D'Agostino's work. They've all sent battered models to her shop for repair.

The most common cosmetic surgery performed at Mannequin Service Co. is a nose job, followed by touch-ups to the ears and fingers. The delicate operations can take a week to complete and cost as much as $200.

When faced with a limb suffering from fractures that, if left untreated, would spread with fatal results, D'Agostino uses a knife to remove crushed and broken material. She fills the gaping wounds with fiberglass or plaster and lets them dry.

Next, an assistant sands the body parts and hangs them in the "spraying area," a closet-like structure that resembles a medieval torture device. The lifeless forms hang from a hook as the assistant, wearing an apron and surgical mask, sprays a ghostly white primer over them. Then more sanding. Finally, flesh tones are added.

When the parts are dry, they are placed on a metal table, where D'Agostino gets down to the serious business of giving the mannequin a personality. It can take her three hours to get the facial expression right.

For the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and 1812 Museum in East Baltimore, D'Agostino spent hours applying plaster and paint to the face of a mannequin that appeared to be about 20. By the time she was finished, the mannequin had aged more than 50 years.

A face lift is usually far less expensive than a new mannequin. The fiberglass figures cost an average of $850, but can command as much as $1,500 for a custom-made model. According to D'Agostino, the average life of a mannequin made of resin and fiberglass is five years. Their constant use demands that they get a makeover every couple of months.

The Jamestown Settlement, a museum that displays artifacts from 17th-century Virginia, recently asked D'Agostino to create a torso for Queen Elizabeth's waxen head. A lifeless form resembling a pre-pubescent teen-ager was selected for the job -- molded to the proper size and shape with a saw and sandpaper.

Royalty graced the shop less than a week.

"Once they have clothes on," D'Agostino said, "they have to get out of here."

D'Agostino's wide-ranging and eclectic clientele extends beyond department stores and museums.

"You never know who's going to come in," D'Agostino said. "Lawyers use mannequins for accident re-enactments. Farmers use them to scare deer off their property. And other people buy them for all kinds of reasons."

Nelson Goldberg, a licensed plastic surgeon, bought a mannequin for the sidecar of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

"I don't think sidecars look right without something or somebody in them," Goldberg said. "To have groceries or tennis equipment OK, but to have nothing is no good."

So Goldberg bought "Little Dummy Boy," a mannequin about the size of an 8-year-old child, and dressed it in some of his son's old clothes -- a pair of worn pants and a red Snoopy T-shirt. The ensemble was completed with a blue motorcycle helmet.

"Some people can tell it's a mannequin, some can't," Goldberg said. "On more than one hot afternoon at the tennis club, I've heard people question how a person could leave his child in a sidecar. Wherever I go, it seems to draw attention."

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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