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Green Lake doll doctor attends to ravages of age

By Marc Ramirez, December 26, 2003

Seattle Times staff reporter


When they can bear it no longer, girls long-grown bring their wrecked and raggedy pals to this tidy Green Lake house, hoping the doll doctor can resurrect their youth.
Inside, antique furniture is placed just so, the way Pamela Sisley's mother kept it before Alzheimer's disease started to steal her away. The green velvet chair in the dining room. The handsome piano.

The basement, though, is nearly all Sisley, a cornucopia of dolldom: Hundreds of eyes gaze from plastic and porcelain figures inside glass cabinets or massed along shelves. One doll nestles in a chaise lounge, covered with a towel. "This is Anne of Green Gables," Sisley says, her voice daintily melodic. "She's waiting for her clothes."

A rosy-cheeked woman with dark hair often whooshed up in a mini-bouffant, Sisley has been collecting dolls for two decades. She has more than 200 in all, some of which she made from molds as a certified modern-doll artist who now teaches others the craft.

A few years ago, she was trained as a doll doctor, and at any given time her ward houses a half-dozen patients, including a few of her own. They sit along a wall like refugees, plagued by cracked skin, shattered heads, torn bodies leaking stuffing. It's a little creepy; even the worst among them — those that look like burn victims — wear eerily blank smiles.

Doll-doctoring basics

Collectors search for many types of dolls, ranging from plastic to papier-mâché. But according to Dwaine Gipe and JoAnn Mathias of the Doll Doctor Association, these are some of the basics:
Bisque dolls: Mostly popular in Europe, these kiln-fired ceramic dolls came into being around 1850 and stayed in production until about 1940. Porcelain is considered the highest-quality bisque.

Composition dolls: These dolls, now the mainstays of doll-hospital wards, were the most popular dolls available in the U.S. until the 1940s. Their skin is usually pinkish, with the consistency of hard rubber, and made from a wood-pulp-based mix of materials.

Plastic dolls: These replaced nearly all earlier materials in the 1940s.

Pamela Sisley's basement worktable is a palette of putty, paints, sponges, clothespins and razor blades. When she returns patients to their "mothers," itemized hospital forms detail the medical procedures — ophthalmology, dermatology, trauma and so on. Prices for repair work can vary widely among doll doctors. Sisley's prices range from $10 for a resculpted finger to $50 for a head. Her complete restorations run into the low triple digits.

Marc Ramirez



Here's Puddin', a Madame Alexander doll from the 1970s, whose owner just wanted her hair washed and styled. An old Effanbee Baby cries out for more attention: "She's still in a situation here," Sisley says, noting her putty-caked head and mottled arms. "She was all ripped open."

Here's one whose ear had to be rebuilt. "Poor little thing," she says, drawing a finger along the reconstructed scalp. "She had no head all the way around here. She was totally without head."

The $200 restoration took about five weeks. "Sometimes people don't even recognize their dolls when they come back in," she says.

When age and illness conspire to steal a person's being, Sisley knows there's only so much you can do. But every week, she breathes life back into dolls, patching up damaged areas, replacing others that have been destroyed and finding acrylic paints to match original shades.

"I don't like to see them all broken and abused," she says. "It gives you a good feeling when you're able to make them well."

Penny

Christmas morning, 1947. Two-year-old Pamela Sisley of Wenatchee wakes to find a tall, unwrapped box among the other gifts. Beulah Ralph, her mother, a youthful woman with dark hair, green eyes and a peaches-and-cream complexion, has hung decorative icicles on the box.

Inside is a big doll in a little bonnet, a mass-market Ideal doll with lacy socks and shoes. Pam names her Penny. Her dad, a meat cutter, had bought it for $20, a day's pay, at Thrifty Drugs on Wenatchee Avenue.

"She was so big," Sisley remembers. "She was just about as big as me."

Dolls were everything in that little-girl world. Repositories of comfort, identity and maternal instinct, a way to tell the world: This is how somebody loves me. Sisley had them all — Tiny Tears, Betsy Wetsy — but Penny was her favorite.

"I had a regular little nursery going there," she says. "I bathed them, cleaned them. I wanted to have 24 kids."

In time, her family moved to Green Lake. Pamela grew up and went to Roosevelt High School, got married, had two sons and taught ballet. But by the early 1980s, her marriage was disintegrating. "I wasn't too super happy," she says. "I wanted to do something just for me."

At first, the dolls were plucked from Home Shopping Network and QVC; then, as she grew more serious, from antique stores and catalogs. There are old Chinahead dolls from the late 19th century, others rescued from thrift-store squalor.

Here's her prize — a $600 doll from the brood of novelist Anne Rice. "See the little red line on the eyes?" she says, pointing out the thin, artistic accents adding life to its gaze. "That's what collectors look for."

Sisley belongs to the national Doll Doctors Association, United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC) and Pacific Northwest Barbie Collectors Club. She knows you should never keep dolls in direct sunlight or put those with "sleeper eyes" face up because the eyes can get stuck open.

She christens her collected composition dolls — the ones with hard, pinkish skin — with the names of family members. There's Wally, named for her father; he even wears her dad's childhood shoes. Mabel, the 1928 specimen in the rocking chair, recalls her grandmother. "This is Rutger Hauer," she says, pointing out another. The actor? "I really like Rutger Hauer," she explains.

Sometimes, UFDC President Mary Lu Trowbridge says, doll collectors hope to capture something they wish they'd had. Sometimes they're after something they once had but no longer own.

"I never did have a girl," Sisley says wistfully. "I always wanted a daughter. I wanted to dress her up in little frilly things."

Instead, comfort came from her dolls. "She's very attached to the dolls she's made," says her cousin and best friend, Leslie Phillips, of Kirkland. "Like any artist would be."

Something wrong

When Sisley was preparing for doll-doctor training, she noticed her mom growing more tired, but it was at Beulah's 70th birthday party that she realized something was wrong. "Who's this from?" Beulah asked, opening one gift.

Minutes later — same gift, same question.

Beulah had developed Alzheimer's. Sisley left her job as an optician's assistant in Lynnwood and moved back to the tidy home of her adolescence to help. "She was just the most fastidious person," she says. "She kept the house so clean."

But then, that was the mother she remembers, not the sweet but unrecognizable woman Beulah eventually became.

Mary

The 1957 Dy-Dee Baby was a popular, award-winning doll. It drank water through lips pursed into a little "o." Its eyes opened and closed; its head was a thatch of lamb's hair.

As a tot, Gloria Wickingstad of Edmonds had one. She named it Mary.

Her mom must have kept it for her. Hair inexplicably clipped, it reappeared in her life when she was a teenager and was always with her after that, a fixture alongside decorative bed pillows. Over the decades, its joints began to fall apart, the result of wear and tear and too many turns in the bathtub. "Last time I picked it up, its leg fell off," Wickingstad says.

Some doll doctors are prestigious enough that clients ship them patients from hundreds of miles away, but Sisley is just getting started. Mary was admitted in a plastic bag.

Sisley knew Mary would need operating; she'd have to restring the leg using a hemostat, like surgeons use for clamping arteries. Afterward, she would clean her up, repaint her features, polish her nails and replace her cocker-spaniel-like hair with black hair. "She's worth quite a bit of money," Sisley says.

More than $300, probably. So it's worth the expense, Wickingstad says, to restore Mary.

And besides, with her mother gone, "there's something very sentimental about it. Anytime you have a gift from someone who's passed on, there's something attached to that. Because there's nothing else they can ever give you."

Falling apart

Penny, Sisley's childhood favorite, has fallen apart, looking nothing like the doll she remembers giving bubble baths or cuddling in bed. One day, Sisley picked her up and a wad of stuffing fell out, and that's the day Penny got towel-wrapped and put into a box.

Worst of all, her head fell off when the elastic cord that kept it fastened to her body disintegrated.

"Look at her," she says. "It just makes me sick."

Some frailties you expect. Alzheimer's, though, sneaks up. As her mother worsened, Sisley took her along to doll-doctoring seminars and tried talking to her the way she always had; but in time, the woman she had known as Beulah Ralph vanished. She died three years ago, at age 75.

"With Alzheimer's, you can't even say goodbye," Sisley says. She stops, wiping away tears. It's not just the memory loss, she says. It's all that goes with it. As her mother's mind left her, so did her world fall into uncharacteristic disarray — first the house, then Beulah herself. Sisley says: "It was like taking care of a baby."

Dwaine Gipe, of the Gaithersburg, Md.-based Doll Doctors Association, says the best doll doctors believe bonds can exist between little girls and their dolls. Sorrowful men have come to him with their mothers' or sisters' dolls, asking him to repair damage they — as boys — did long ago.

"The real doll doctor feels the responsibility to make the doll well," Gipe says. Craftsmanship and artistry are essential, he says, but so is a belief that they are resurrecting real life. "I have seen excellent craftsmen and artists fail as doll doctors, simply because they could not believe in those real relationships."

Sisley is one of the faithful.

Having her dolls helped her through the mourning process, she says. Oh, she would have been a real case. But life forces you to move on, and now, wearing a lab coat saved from her days at the optical shop, she opens the mold for a 24-inch catalog doll named Amy.

She dusts the mold, then lightly brushes it with water mixed with a hint of baby shampoo. It's one of 20 sets of ceramic molds she owns, with notches marking the number of times used. Back together the halves go, leaving a small hole on top. Sisley takes the jug of porcelain slip labeled "French Bisque" and pours it into the mold; it's silky brown, like Kahlua.

Someday, she says, she hopes to create an original doll. Few doll artists ever enjoy such mass-market success, but "if you don't have passions, dreams, goals," she says, "life can be a little overwhelming."

Her doll will have dark hair and green eyes. It might even have a peaches-and-cream complexion. It will be something she can sell to help fund Alzheimer's research. And its name will be Beulah.

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com