Kathy Lewis was 6 when she received her first Chatty Cathy doll. It would not be her last.
By the 1980s, the Thousand Oaks woman found herself searching doll shows and swap meets for the 1960s pull-string dolls with the bucktoothed grin and baby-like vocabulary. At one point she had as many as 500 of the toys.
Only most of the ones she found had long ago lost their voices.
So she started trying to fix the voice boxes. Her attempts to repair them led to the creation in 1989 of the talking doll fix-it shop called Chatty Cathy’s Haven out of her Newbury Park home.
During the next several years Lewis and her family repaired 6,000 dolls, which are quickly becoming a collector’s item.
“Our inventory room was our two-car garage, our spare bedroom was our office, our living room was shipping and receiving and our dining room was the main repair area. We ate on TV trays in the family room every night,” Lewis said.
She has since sold the business and scaled down her collection to just a handful of dolls--used mostly to entertain the children she keeps at her home day-care center.
Pull their strings and the dolls come out with sayings Lewis’ youngest charges have yet to utter, if not think. “I’m hungry,” one says, and 18-month-old Zachary Hougardy of Newbury Park squeals with delight.
But Kelly McIntyre of Reseda, who bought the doll repair business from Lewis, continues giving voice to a generation of baby boomers who are discovering that they never outgrew the doll.
At age 37, Chatty Cathy has her own Web page, her own fan club and--in McIntyre’s backyard workshop--her own speaker’s bureau.
It’s actually a cabinet loaded with used speakers and miniature record players. But the tiny turntables are outfitted with 3-inch vinyl records that contain 11 phrases such as “Will you play with me?” and “Tell me a story.”
A tug to the string on the doll’s back activates a mainspring that causes a small rubber belt to drive the turntable. A broken or stretched belt is usually to blame when a Chatty Cathy turns mute.
As he opened the stomach of a Chatty Cathy with a knife and a hammer, McIntyre noted, “The owner of this doll probably hasn’t heard its voice in 30 years. People are very happy to get their Chatties talking again.”
Chatty Cathy talked up a storm for nearly a million children when she was introduced by Mattel in 1960. Her childlike voice is that of famed voice-over artist June Foray.
For Lewis, it is a love affair long in the making. She remembers watching Mattel workers toss broken parts into the trash.
“We lived in Lawndale about a mile from Mattel,” said Lewis, 40. “I’d walk over and stand by the back fence and look inside the plant. My dream was to be discovered outside the building and picked to be a toy tester for Mattel.”
After finding a Chatty Cathy in a swap meet in the mid-'80s, Lewis remembers working long hours in an attempt to fix its voice box. “It was 1 o’clock in the morning and I was running around the house, pulling the string, waking everybody up, ‘She talks! She talks!’ ”
Marketed to both girls and boys, the doll was joined by sibling talking dolls named Charmin’ Chatty, Singin’ Chatty, Chatty Baby and Tiny Chatty Baby by the time production was phased out in 1965. Later versions of the doll contained up to 18 phrases.
Variations in hair color and style, in skin tone and eye color and in specially tailored clothing gave the Chatties an individual look.
“Even though they were mass-produced, the bizarre thing is that every one seems to be different,” said Beth Gunther, a 35-year-old Atlanta woman who has spent up to $1,700 for some of her 75 Chatty Cathys.
Chatty Cathy fans say her voice is only one of the reasons her owners have clung to them all these years--or are now scurrying to find another to own.
They say the doll was more realistic looking to little girls than the more famous--and more curvaceous--Barbie doll. Wholesome-looking Chatty Cathys sported page-boy haircuts, freckles, toothy smiles, knock-knees and slight potbellies.
“They’re very endearing,” said Lewis, who now has 20 dolls and after an unsuccessful period of abstinence is rebuilding her collection. “They’re sweet dolls. They’re innocent. They bring back the memories of the easy life.”
“They are reminders of a more easygoing time,” agreed Lisa Eisenstein, head of the 8-year-old Chatty Cathy fan club. Its 250 members receive a quarterly newsletter and meet annually for conventions.
“Chatty Cathy was special. They were well-made, not like the junk made now. They represent a special time for a lot of people. It’s a time that people want to bring back,” said Eisenstein, 44, of Readington, N.J.
Hollywood record producer Mark Mazzetti grew up surrounded by Chatty Cathys as one of seven children in his Wilmington, Del., household. Today, he is still surrounded by them.
“These dolls have to be some of the most beloved, most played-with toys of the century,” said Mazzetti, whose collection numbers 250-plus. “Not abused or wrecked, just heavily played with.”
Although Chatty Cathy’s record-player voice box was built to survive rough handling and frequent drops to the floor, the mechanism was more fragile than electronic chip-driven sound devices built into today’s toys.
When Chatty Cathy stopped talking, the easiest way to fix her in the old days was to simply attach the old doll’s head to a new doll’s body.
McIntyre, 41, wasn’t a Chatty Cathy fan when he purchased the business. A television production coordinator sidelined by a bout with diabetes, McIntyre instead was looking for ways to fight boredom at home.
Lewis taught him to carefully open the dolls and reseal them after the voice mechanisms were repaired. She also sold him her supply of cannibalized Chatty Cathy spare parts.
Admitting defeat to her passion for the doll, Lewis is working on her second book about them. While the first, published in 1994, focused solely on Chatty Cathy and her mates, this one will include a history of many talking dolls.
“Once you’re a collector, you can’t get rid of the bug,” she said.
Times correspondent Penny Arevalo contributed to this story.