The doll doctor is in

Patience: Brenda Franz painstakingly restores people's precious childhood treasures.

May 26, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The sign on her Ellicott City shop says "Doll Hospital," but Brenda L. Franz'swork isn't simply about stitching up ripped teddy bears or repainting 80-year-old baby dolls.

She repairs childhood memories.

After 15 years mending people's beloved toys, Franz knows oh so well why a grown man won't throw away the bear he slept next to as a boy, or why a woman can't bear to part with the doll her favorite aunt gave her.

Some of the toys come to Franz so beaten up that they look like candidates for the trash bin, but the owners aren't about to let go. She can relate: She had a favorite doll as a girl.

"This is what you associate [with] your childhood," Franz said, picking up a nearly falling apart teddy bear with stuffing showing and both eyes missing. "You have all those fond memories of sleeping with it, dragging it around. A lot of people will pay anything to get them back again."

Toy restoration might seem like a service for collectors, but about 70 percent of Franz's clientele bring in dolls or bears that belonged to them as children, or were passed down to them. Among her customers was Walter B. Jones, a congressman from North Carolina who sent over his 55-year-old teddy bear - the one he'd had for as long as he could remember - so it could be touched up. Then there are the child clients, who tend to be reluctant to part with their dolls even for doctoring. The common denominator is the feeling that a toy's monetary value has nothing to do with its real worth.

"It's very personal," said GerryGordon, a Sykesville resident who took three dolls to Franz. All had ties to Gordon's family, and one belonged to her late mother.

"These dolls, to me, are irreplaceable," she said. "Each of them conjures up memories."

Franz restores toys because she likes the precise, delicate work required. Tiny needles, paintbrushes and cotton swabs are the tools of the trade.

The job also taps into her long-held attraction for items with history. Her grandmother took her antiquing as a child. Fifteen years ago, she opened Attic Antiques 'NThings in Ellicott City with her husband, William O. Franz.

When she started the shop, she also began taking in dolls and bears injured by time and children's affection - or perhaps overly eager pets. Her husband, who has a knack for making doll parts, helps with the work.

Hundreds of toys have come to her for care. The price ranges from $50 to $350, depending on the amount of repair needed. Occasionally, a doll takes a year of work.

"I love restoring things," Franz said. "I enjoy putting things back together, making them look nice and presentable."

Self-taught in the craft, she said she relies on imagination, inventing techniques and designing patterns for doll clothes.

Franz usually works on her patients in the mornings and evenings at her Ellicott City house, the strains of music or a television show playing in the background. Her supplies fill the extra bedroom, the one painted yellow; there are doll eyes, wigs, teeth and shoes, fabric and lace, even human-hair eyelashes. Open up a few containers and the pungent smell of ceramcoatmatte varnish - a fragrance reminiscent of gasoline - lingers in the air.

The key to the job is patience.

For dolls with horrendously matted hair, Franz combs and combs and combs, working from strand to strand. She cleans the hair with regular shampoo, then sets it with rollers, mousse and hairspray.

She fills cracks with a variety of materials, sometimes carpenter's putty. Then she rubs with fine sandpaper, seals the area with a "secret mixture" and repaints.

Cathy Wetmiller, a Wheaton resident whose family's cherished collection of nutcrackers was damaged in a fire in 1998, was delighted by such attention to detail. Franz had to peel off and replace discolored beards and hair without ruining the wood, a project that more than a dozen others had turned down.

"Nobody would touch this, because it's not something that anybody specializes in," said Wetmiller, who owns a craft shop.

Franz has handled turn-of-the-century dolls, some made of bisque - an unglazed white porcelain - and some composed of a mixture of paper and glue. She's fixed up American Girl dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids, Madame Alexanders, Barbies, Raggedy Anns. Last spring, Columbia resident Edward Williams took Franz the 100-year-old doll that his stepmother treasured as a child, a baby-sized bisque creation with an adult face. Franz cleaned it up, restrung the arms and legs, tidied the hair and replaced the dry-rotted dress.

Williams said the doll - stored in a shoebox for almost 20 years and now displayed in his living room - looks great. But it's more than the sum of its repaired parts.

"It meant a lot to my stepmother, and she meant a lot to me," he said. "Otherwise, it would have just been an old doll."

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