Doctoring Beloved Dolls

Odd Jobs, People
on May 13, 2007
Photos by David Mudd Mary Ann Pizzolato repairs-- and pampers-- dolls at her shop in Spring, Texas.

Mary Ann Pizzolato peers into the dull blue eyes of Baby Coos, a 60-year-old doll whose plastic peepers have been clouded by a fungus—and time. Next, she flexes the doll’s vinyl legs, which are ripped and ready to fall off.

After examining the doll from head to toe, Pizzolato looks hopeful. After all, she’s been repairing cracked Kewpies, balding Barbies and tattered teddy bears for 30 years.

“If we treat her mold and attach these legs the best we can, it’s going to be about $60,” says Pizzolato, 53, the owner of The Doll Hospital in Spring, Texas (pop. 36,385).

Baby Coos is worth saving to Beverly Peach, 68, of Mount Carmel, Ill., who received the doll as a Christmas gift when she was 10.

“Then we’ll get her admitted,” says Pizzolato, who has repaired dolls as a sideline since the 1970s when she apprenticed with a doll doctor in her hometown of East Orange, N.J.

Clad in a white lab jacket, Pizzolato tags and bags Baby Coos’ clothing and assigns her a bed-box in a ward with a hundred other dolls with flopping limbs, sunken eyes, broken necks, squawky voice boxes and sawdust seeping from their middles. Dolls that arrive without clothes are robed in miniature hospital gowns. “They get embarrassed,” Pizzolato says with a smile.

“Some things are minor, like reattaching a head or restyling hair,” she says, whereas other dolls need major makeovers. “I restored a Shirley Temple doll that had both feet and arms eaten by a rottweiler.”

In 1985, Pizzolato left a career as a chemical engineer for Gulf Oil Co. during a slump in the oil business and opened the doll repair and retail shop two years later. Her chemistry background comes in handy in duplicating the original material used by the doll makers.

“I go back to the basics,” she says. “I’m at heart a conservationist.”

Pizzolato restores dolls made of china and leather, wood and wax, papier-mâché and plastic. With the duplicated material, she sculpts a new toe, a chin or other body part, then sands and paints them.

To remove decades of dirt left by grubby little hands, Pizzolato concocted a solution that cleans without removing painted ruby lips and pink cheeks.

A rejuvenated 1931 Patsy doll decked in a pink corduroy coat and a 1923 Bubbles in bloomers and bonnet look like a lineup in a beauty pageant after Pizzolato’s handiwork. They smell as fresh as they look, too, because she sprays them with a vanilla-scented fragrance that she formulated.

“New dolly smell and Christmas morning just go together,” Pizzolato says. “I like being able to bring back some of that magic to people’s lives.”

Dolls are sent to The Doll Hospital for appraisals and repairs from around the United States and keep Pizzolato and four assistants bustling. Costs range from $25 for a simple restringing of limbs to more than $1,000 for a major reconstruction, such as the work needed on an 1850s china doll with a shattered face. In its restored condition, the rare doll by French doll maker A. Thuillier is valued at $50,000.

Not every doll that Pizzolato rescues has antique value, though. Some are modern plastic dolls that have been squeezed and smooched to shreds, but are priceless to their young owners. Last year, Brooke Frohock, 7, and her sister, Madison, 9, checked their dolls into the hospital for needed eye implants and skin transplants, but were sad about leaving their beloved babies.

“These were their first dolls,” says their mother, Gabrielle Frohock, of Sugar Land, Texas. “They put them to bed each night.”

To ease the girls’ worries, Pizzolato sent daily e-mails to them from their dolls. “Dr. Mary Ann gave me a bubble bath and I got to eat chocolate ice cream,” one message read. “Don’t be sad because I’m going to be so beautiful when you see me.”

“Mary Ann made the whole thing a pleasant experience,” Gabrielle says.

Pizzolato delights in seeing the faces of 7-year-olds and 70-year-olds when they come to take their rehabilitated dolls home from The Doll Hospital.

“It’s a little piece of childhood that people hang onto,” she says. “We get to relive a lot of happy times with people.”

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