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Paper Playmates : The Buying, Selling and Dressing Up of Dolls, From Victorian Maidens to the Pope to Mrs. Bush, Is a Hobby and Passion Strictly for Grown-Ups

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Tierney swears he has never seen George Bush in his underwear.

Kindly turn to Plate 1 of the artist’s latest entry in his motley stable of paper doll all-stars--the nation’s 41st President and family in “full color” and minutely researched wardrobe. Except for the undies, that is. Even though Tierney’s paper brainchildren spring full grown onto the page only after he studies their true-life garb down to the fabric swatch, when it came to Bush’s skivvies, the ever-vigilant artist was forced to, well, guess.

Plate 1, you see, is the actual doll, which always comes nearly in the buff, except for Tierney’s two-dimensional Pope John Paul II, who gets special dispensation from appearing in public in his drawers.

“The publisher said, ‘You have to be dignified,’ ” says the uber paper doll artist of our time.

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Don’t snicker. Designer Bob Mackie called him someone who “probably knows more about glamour than anybody,” in Tierney’s words. Garbo once asked for his autograph. And the humble paper doll has made Tierney a millionaire.

“They’re just beautifully drawn,” says paper doll expert Emma Terry, who writes, edits, copies and ships the bimonthly Paper Doll News, circulation 225, from tiny Vivian, La. “I would say he’s about the best.”

Tierney, a 62-year-old New Yorker, is considered a paper doll celebrity to those in the know, a honcho among a tiny but growing, offbeat and impassioned assortment of grown-ups who meet, swap dolls that may run into the thousands of dollars, research their history endlessly, study chatty newsletters, send each other paper dolls instead of greeting cards and convene once a year to dress up as fantasy characters.

And, yes, they play with dolls, too. “I play all day long,” says John Darcy Noble, a Vista resident and “toy curator emeritus” of the Museum of the City of New York. “I have always played and I have never stopped playing since I was a child. I believe play is a natural human activity, and what’s wrong with this world is that people have stopped playing. The most they do is play cards or watch other people play on television. The most highly evolved animals are always playing--monkeys, whales play all the time.

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“Only stupid humanity has stopped playing. The whole stupid world has gone crackers.”

Noble is an aristocrat to Southern California’s knot of enthusiasts, one of the country’s larger groups of collectors, about 50 of whom meet regularly to consider the paper doll. (Serious collectors are a select group--there are only an estimated 1,000 nationwide.)

They are women of a certain age who remember playing with Mary Pickford paper dolls. They are historians, of course. They are artists and art dealers, like paper doll artist Barb Rausch of Van Nuys, a comics illustrator whose style is detectable to aficionados, even though her official Barbie paper dolls are unsigned. There is Riverside’s Evelyn Gathings, who resurrects the 19th-Century fashion of putting monkeys and insects into costume. There is Noble himself, who draws on his own sometimes fantastic experiences to create such dolls as his bride, now under construction, who trips down the aisle with a cat snoozing on her train.

But the hard-core paper doll fan sets his sights quite a bit farther than the nearest gift or museum shop, where some of the fancier paper dolls can be found. In fact, Noble’s own collecting preference stretches back a couple of centuries.

“It’s the earlier and earlier things that excite me,” he says. “I’m not terribly into the late Victorian things. I get excited about 1860, and 1820, I’m jumping with joy. Eighteenth Century, I’m like a humming top.”

Noble says he knew he was that rare soul born to collect at age 6. “I’ve always loved old things, and I’ve always been a pack-rat person. When I first went to school, we brought toys to class, and I traded my new toys for old ones.”

Today, a lifetime of collecting later, his choicest pieces include tiny toy theaters modeled after productions of actual English melodramas popular in the 1820s, European paper dolls with moving parts and “tinsel pictures"--paper dolls of knights in armor that young boys would collect and decorate with bright bits to be hung in English parlors. There’s a paper Noah’s ark and tiny boxed landscapes that you peep at through a pinhole--an 18th-Century castle with stags and hounds, a party at Versailles and a hermit in his cell.

But Noble’s true masterpiece, the undying highlight of his collection, is a bitty French kitchen from the 1850s. “It is in an alcove with curtains. The paper stove opens on a hinge and there are paper saucepans. There’s a paper dresser with paper cups and saucers and the drawer opens and there are paper knives and forks. The paper cook, he has a paper hat you can take off and you can put a ladle in his hand. It’s enchanting.”

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But paper doll collecting isn’t just charm, nostalgia and fairy dust. It’s big bucks, these days. “Like the real dolls, it’s getting so it is quite an important collecting area,” Noble says. “It’s not like collecting milk bottle caps. When you pay $2,000 for a handful of paper, the handful of paper is something precious and important.”

One Monterey Park collector, Deanna Williams, figures that if she really wanted to, she could sell her collection and buy a Rolls-Royce. She doesn’t want to.

“If I sold all my paper dolls, I could move into a smaller house, my closets are so full,” says Williams, a college art history lecturer.

Such fervent doll devotees network each year at national conventions, and they’re converging on Los Angeles next year for a “paper doll fiesta.” And a couple hundred are in Orlando, Fla., this minute for a conference that culminates in a costume ball with a wedding theme--a natural for paper dolls. And remember, these are people who take playing seriously.

Take Jim Faraone, 38, editor of the San Antonio-based quarterly newsletter, P.D. Pal (circulation: 200), who is not leaving his convention garb to chance. “I have this outfit of a ring bearer in shorts, with a little pillow with a ring on it.”

The trophies of this world, the ones that bring up to five figures at auction, are the earliest paper dolls from France and Germany that date back to the mid-18th Century, dolls that paraded the latest fashions for adult aristocrats, or came with moving parts to amuse the French court in puppet shows. For decades to come, paper dolls did the job of fashion magazines and advertisements, championing such products as flour, stove polish and mercerized thread. Some wooed repeat newspaper sales in Sunday inserts. And women studied them in front and side views for fashion tips for make-your-own wear.

The last people paper dolls were intended for were children.

But by the time the Depression rolled around, paper dolls had become America’s favorite dime-store toy--and an inspiration for generations of designers. “One thing I found out from designers was that every one of them started with paper dolls as a kid,” Tierney says during a telephone interview. “Here are people making millions of dollars, and paper dolls got them started. A kid can’t buy 20 yards of see-through velvet, but they can draw it. A lot of designers learned how to design through paper dolls.”

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The favorites were paper dolls of the stars, Shirley Temple and the like. But by the ‘50s, the economical Shirleys had succumbed to an even more compelling force--Barbie.

“Barbie is indestructible,” Tierney says. “No matter what they do to her, she survives. When Barbie came out, here was a plastic doll that was affordable. People switched. Betsy McCall was a paper doll in McCall’s, but finally Barbie killed off Betsy.”

Still, even the humble paper doll is seeing its day of resurrection. Western Publishing Co., a Racine, Wis., firm that bills itself as the largest commercial paper doll manufacturer, declines to disclose sales figures but says the children’s market for paper dolls seems to be growing.

And as far as the zealous adult market goes, you can thank Tom Tierney for putting paper dolls back on the shelves. Tierney, considered one of the most successful paper doll artists ever, is credited with triggering a comeback for paper dolls. More than a million copies of his 58 books are sold each year at $3.95 a pop, often in pairs at a time--one to keep and one to cut.

Tierney, a former fashion illustrator, began a dozen years ago with paper dolls of such movie stars as Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe and moved on to such unlikely playmates as Gertrude Stein, Golda Meir, Christian Science Church founder Mary Baker Eddy and the Pope, whose paper wardrobe includes a historically correct ski outfit.

One woman wrote to say she had taken her paper Pope to Vatican City. “She had an audience with the Pope,” Tierney says. “She reached in her purse, whipped out the doll and asked for an autograph. He autographed it, and according to her, blessed it. I probably have the only papally blessed paper doll ever done.”

Tierney is particularly keen on researching wardrobe, to produce what he calls “biographical paper dolls.” Tierney’s Pope wears a wristwatch and leather shoes instead of the traditional velvet slippers. When Tierney produced his book of the presidential Kennedys, he consulted Oleg Cassini’s assistants on color and fabric, because most photos of JFK and Jackie were black and white. His insistence on accuracy has earned him mixed reviews, particularly in the case of his paper Egyptian women.

“Cleopatra is bare bosomed, as is Nefertiti. We got a lot of fan mail from people who say, ‘You have guts,’ and the others say, ‘Why would you do a paper doll for children with bare bosoms?’ I write back and say, ‘I’m sorry I offended you, but they’re historically accurate.’ So no cracks about Tierney’s virtually svelte Barbara Bush doll. “I think a lot of people were surprised that I drew her as she is, but she’s really not that big and fat. She’s big-boned, as we say.”

Such details are important to paper doll folk, who figure that, in another century or two, posterity will look to these objects of their affection for clues to the images of early astronauts and mythical monsters, to Presidents and Popes.

Says Noble: “If you built a house in 1930, it’s probably fallen down or you sold it. If you built furniture, it’s tattered. But the paper things survive. They somehow follow you around the world. I have things that were made in Yorkshire in 1810, and they’re still here and they’re still intact, although houses and towns fall down in decay. This is the great magic of paper. It’s immortal.”


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