A different kind of dollhouse debuts Family: At American Girl Place in Chicago, girls and their dolls can have a bonding experience. For their parents, it's a buying experience as well.

December 06, 1998|By Lisbeth Levine | Lisbeth Levine,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO - Gabriela Vazquez, 8, was dressed for the occasion. And so was her doll. Clad in a "Proud to be an American Girl" T-shirt and black leggings, Vazquez walked around American Girl Place on opening day a few weeks ago, one arm wound around Josefina, a doll garbed in an identical T-shirt and leggings. Gabriela's dark hair was pulled into a high braid. Ditto for Josefina's.

"They always match," said Gabriela's mother, Graciela Vazquez. The mother-daughter duo was drinking in every square inch of the three-story retail and entertainment complex before taking their seats in the theater for the "The American Girls Revue," a one-hour musical.

Upstairs in the cafe, girls were seated on black and white polka-dotted banquettes sipping hot chocolate from striped demitasse cups. Their dolls were propped up beside them on polka-dotted "sassy seats" attached to the tables.

The 35,000-square-foot space just off Michigan Avenue is the first of its kind devoted to the world of American Girl, an extensive - and pricey - line of dolls, books, clothing and accessories that has an avid following among 7-to-12-year-old girls. Until now, the $82 dolls and accessories such as Samantha's school desk ($68) and Felicity's chocolate set ($55) have been available only from a catalog, as have the dress-like-your-doll gowns and petticoats in sizes 6x-16. Only the books have been sold in stores.

Representatives of American Girl Place downplay the obvious commercial aspects of the venture, preferring to portray it as a bonding experience. "We have known for years that girls and their parents have a very special relationship with the product and make magical memories together because of the product," said Julia Prohaska, director of corporate communications for Pleasant Company, which makes the dolls. "So to have it all in one place where they can come spend time together will be a phenomenal experience for customers."

The historical American Girls Collection and the companion books are the Pleasant Company's best-known product, but there are also contemporary dolls under the American Girl Today banner and an infant doll named Bitty Baby.

Each of the six dolls in the American Girls Collection - which includes an African-American and a Hispanic doll - comes from a different period in American history, and each is sold with a book. About three years of research goes into each character's clothing, accessories and books to ensure that every shawl, steamer trunk and tin lunch pail is authentic. The characters in the books are smart and spunky, earning them the approval of modern mothers.

The Pleasant Company was founded in 1986 by Pleasant Rowland, a former educator who was dismayed by the quality of playthings available for girls. "She felt there was very little out there of substance that had values and lessons that women would want to promote with their daughters," Prohaska said. She turned out to be right; since 1986, the company has sold more than 4 million dolls. Total sales in 1997 hit $287 million.

Her historically accurate dolls were conceived as an alternative to the anatomically inaccurate Barbie. So it was deeply ironic that Barbie and the American Girls became sisters last summer when Mattel bought the Pleasant Com-pany, based in Middleton, Wis., for $700 million. Rowland remains president of Pleasant Company and has become vice chairman of Mattel.

Despite the buyout, American Girl Place remains a Barbie-free zone. The main floor contains a library housing the collection of books and American Girl magazine, a bimonthly with a circulation of 750,000. In the photo studio, girls can get their picture pasted on a special issue of American Girl magazine for $19.95. Downstairs is the theater (count on $25 to see the show) and the American Girls Collection, glass showcases housing the six historical dolls and all of their accessories. Separate exhibits depict merchandise-free room settings appropriate to each character.

Upstairs, the 136-seat cafe serves lunch ($16), afternoon tea ($16) or dinner ($18). Lunch and dinner begin with miniature cinnamon buns and may be followed by a salad pinwheel, tomato soup, chicken potpie and a flowerpot filled with NTC chocolate pudding. The rest of the floor is given over to Bitty Baby's nursery, American Girl Today dolls and clothing sized for living, breathing girl shoppers with a taste for red vinyl jumpers.

TIMELINE

1986: Pleasant Rowland launches first three American Girls - Kirsten, Samantha and Molly - as an alternative to Barbie. Each of the characters is 9 years old. Three books about each doll and appropriate accessories are introduced simultaneously. All are sold strictly through mail-order.

1987: Three more books added about each doll.

1991: Felicity introduced.

1992: American Girl magazine debuts. The bimonthly magazine is ad-free. By 1998, it has a circulation of 750,000.

1993: Addy, an African-American doll, is launched. Oprah Winfrey features it on her show, generating tens of thousands of catalog requests.

1995: Debut of American Girl Today, 20 contemporary dolls with varying ethnic features. Also introduced is Bitty Baby, an infant doll aimed at younger sisters of American Girl fans and at girls about to get a new sibling.

1997: Josefina, a Hispanic doll, is added to the American Girls Collection.

July, 1998: Mattel, the maker of Barbie, buys Pleasant Company for $700 million.

Nov. 19, 1998: Opening of American Girl Place in Chicago, a retail and entertainment complex showcasing American Girl products.

Nov. 23, 1998: American Girl Place featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Winfrey describes the experience as "a real girls' day out."

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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