My 20 years with Mattel
by Martha Armstrong-Hand
Doll Reader, February 1998
My first experience with figure sculpture sculpture was under our Christmas tree in Berlin, Germany. My grandfather's sister had created figures made out of plaster, which were then painted and clothed.
When I studied at the academy of art in Berlin, my first serious work at age 19 was a Nativity in ceramic, commissioned by our church.
After I arrived in this country during the 1950s, it was necessary to earn a living for my family, and I found my niche making figures for ViewMaster. I started with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and worked with many stories and animation studios I even created some of my own figures for “Littlest Angel” and “The Night Before Christmas.” I was introduced to Warner Brothers, MGM, Walter Lantz, and Disney cartoons.
Among my favorites at Disney were Peter Pan, Bambi, and Donald Duck. This activity got me into Mattel in a roundabout way. Without my knowledge at the time, I had been placed on an artist list at the Disney Studios, and an art director at Mattel picked up my name from that list. The art director came to our house in Van Nuys and commissioned me to model a preliminary head for a doll. At that time, I had no idea what and who Mattel was.
I did the head but did not get the final job. I was delighted--I made $100 in four hours. That head was for Chatty Cathy, and the year was 1960.
It wasn’t until 1963 that I figured out what Mattel was doing. I had tried to get a job as a graphic artist, but the agency where I applied immediately classified me as a toy maker on seeing my ViewMaster slides. So I was sent to Mattel where a job for a face painter was open--not on a line painting faces, but as a designer of doll faces.
What got Mattel on the map was an idea of Mattel owners Ruth and Elliot Handler and a German doll called Bild Lilli.
Eventually, Mattel bought the Lilli rights, and by 1959, Barbie was on the shelves in the United States.
Barbie had been advertised on television, and there was quite a run on her right away. Within two years, she was an across-the-board success in the States. Back in Hawthorne, California, artists and engineers have been busy ever since to develop her with new body parts--new eyes, new hair, and, of course, endless fashion.
There hasn’t been a year since I started working at Mattel that Barbie didn't get a new friend or relation. I designed, that is painted, the faces of Midge, Skipper, Tutti and Todd, Francie, and of course my own Rickie as well as Ken's friend Alan and Skipper's friend Skooter.
In 1963, Mattel had seven sculptors, and I was not one of them yet.
Manufacturing, particularly in the developing stages, is team work. Every doll, including Barbie, goes through the ritual of ideas, drawing, molding, and changing.
The Marketing Department and the owners determine what should he produced. While I was painting away in my cubicle, a new doll gadget--a "burp"--yes, a burp sound--had been created in a neighboring cubicle. Now the burp needed a baby. The Handlers had left instructions to model some infant heads while they were traveling abroad, and the whole sculpture department was busy with wrinkled babies. When the Handlers returned, they didn't like a single one.
New babies were born (11 from the sculpture department), and to my delight I was asked to contribute to the frantic effort. All the doll heads were wigged and set on temporary bodies, and all the women in the department--ahout 30 or so plus the owners--voted. I was told that Ruth Handler picked up my No. 13 and hugged her. I was a sculptor at Mattel!
Soon I was modeling my first doll, Pat-a-Burp. I was responsible for the head, arms, and legs. The burp case was imbedded in her body. I determined the hair too, a rare privilege mostly left to the hair department and some men in management who invariably opted for blondes.
My talent had already been honed in the courts of animation and puppetry. To make a sweet child was just a matter of finding a good model. For this, I collected notebooks full of photos from magazines.
The year is now 1964, and an inexpensive talker was being planned. We called her the "Hong Kong Talker" because that's where she was going to be produced. A charming voice was found, and now we needed a toddler head to go with the voice: "I want another drink of water" or "I am sleepy" [spoken in a high, squeaky tone]--that was Drowsy's voice.
I was chosen to submit three heads. All were painted and wigged and went into a management/marketing meeting. When the meeting broke, [one doll was chosen to be Drowsy and] two of my dolls had new names: The Walking Doll (later Baby First Step) and Baby Sheryl. The original head for the Walking Doll had been done by another sculptor. In this meeting, it was considered too old. One of my two heads was chosen for the Walking Doll instead.
As usual, Drowsy started out with dark hair and ended up blonde. Her half closed eyes were the idea of our art director who insisted on her, what I thought, silly eyes, which turned out most effective. The doll was produced in the same shape for 20 years and a smal]er model, with modeled on hair, made it all the way to 1985.
Drowsy's head went through many transformations, but the same mold was used. Her head distinguished a walking or skating doll issued especially for Sears. With her eyes wide open, Drowsy became Baby Colleen and Patootie.
My favorite was Patootie the Clown. To make him smile for the happy face was very difficult, and we painted many versions. For some reason, the sad face was much easier to paint. If you own Patootie with mask, you have a collector's item, as in children's rooms the mask disappeared first.
As Baby Secret, Drowsy, moved her mouth and whispered. It was a true, team effort between the engineer and the sculptor, and took us through many trials. To make use of that mechanism, Baby Teeny Talk was produced as well as a special Red Riding Hood.
Baby First Step had started with the walking mechanism and a body was designed around it. Thank goodness I only had the head to do. The body was done by John Gardner who had to make seven different legs before he fitted the contraption inside. I should say the remarkable mechanism that made the doll balance while walking. She certainly became a million-dollar baby, both in the U.S. and in Europe.
The third head, on Baby Sheryl, was seen for only two seasons.
In 1965, we started working on a unique doll. Team work between the engineer and the sculptor, in this case myself, were at its all-time best, and the outcome showed it.
First, we called her Baby Laugh and Cry, but her final name was Cheerful Tearful. A child would feed the doll water from a special baby bottle. This filled a little tank in the doll's head and her left arm was the lever that compressed or relaxed the flexible tank. The genius in the design was the inner connection between tank and skin that moved the face in iust the right way to make her cry. Cheerful was her normal state with arm up.
In the beginning, her eyes were set in, and we already had package art when it was discovered that a previous patent had been registered for just such a doll mechanism without ever having been produced as a doll. The very capable engineer John Hartman managed to make her work with painted instead of set eyes and little holes in the corner near the nose for the tears to come out. He also devised an accordion-tank system and this changed the mechanism enough to apply for a new patent. Cheerful Tearful was on the road to success, both here and in Europe.
As inner mechanisms got more and more sophisticated, every toy show asked for new and ingenious concepts, and the team effort of sculptors and engineers also got more demanding.
A pleasant story started in 1965, again at a time when the Handlers were on a trip. The work order read, "Make unique little dolls that fit into the hand of a child." Mr. Handler wanted little neighborhood children. Still, they had to have large heads and very small bodies. I had painted the whole gang from the sculpture department. (I was still a painter and I really itched to try my hands, but I had not been asked.) One of my neighbors kept egging me on and finally, without a work order, I modeled a head, put it on one of the bodies, dressed it complete with paper hat and stick sword. A little boy. On seeing this, the director asked me to do more and I ended up with four designs. Three of my designs were accepted along with one other and they became the first nine Kiddles, and the year was 1966. The next year, I don't know how many were produced.
This went on and on until there was a kingdom of more than ]00 Kiddles of all sizes--right down to perfume bottles and jewelry. One little Kiddle's head joined the Barbie family and became Skipper's friend Chris. Another Kiddle head became Buffy from the television show "Buffy and Mrs. Beasly" ["Family Affair"]. Three became Pretty Pairs.
For various reasons, I left Mattel in 1967, but the grass was not greener in other fields, and I was happy to be rehired in 1969. There was lots of room at Mattel for new products. I came back with a few ideas of my own but had to wait my turn.
While I was away from Mattel from 1967 to 1969, I created a doll family: father, mother, baby, sister, and brother. Originally, I had in mind to have them travel through time, but nobody was interested in that. Then I tried to sell Mattel the idea of the family being the "neighbors" with everyday activities like father working, children going to school, and so forth. Right off, some marketing people didn't think "family" was such a good idea. But when The Littlechap Family came out [from another company], management changed its mind--only my people were considered too weird, so I made new people.
Our wonderful artist, Joyce Christopher, sat down with me and drew up a presentation. This finally convinced management, and with more artist input and packaging plus crafts, The Good Earth Family was born. The Handlers thought"Good Earth" was too "hippie" a name and after endless searching, agreed on The Sunshine Family.
Meanwhile, The Sunshine Family had fun, got a farm and a cow, a cat, a dog, and, oh yes, grandparents. Eventually, they had another child, but in the end they moved into a condominium.
This whole development took place over six years, and finally, in 1976, Mama and Papa did go time traveling and helped with the celebration of the Bicentennial. They were called The Star-Spangled Dolls.
During the same time period, another doll complex was forming, It started with the inventor Eddy Goldfarb walking into Elliot Handler's office with a Drowsy filled with beans. He called it a bean-bag baby Elliot was impressed but thought the baby was too big, too heavy, and too clumsy.
Joyce Christopher made some charming sketches on paper depicting smaller bean-bag characters with various expressions. I became the sculptor of the heads, Joyce modeled the hands, and fashion designer Dorothy Shoe furnished the cuddly bodies. We were a winning team.
The shy baby, first called Bitty Beans, actually came from my original design of The Sunshine Family baby, or rather the neighbor's baby that was never put into the production stream.
Yawny or Bedsie Beans did not last very long, but I see somebody copied her in the doll world of today. The smiling character took on a variety of names, including Booful and Punky. The shy one was used for a number of new personalities: Talking Beans and later Jean, Biffy, and Puffin Beans. Cry Baby Beans could cry and be fed.
The next group of dolls came in 1973 and 1974. Eventually there were mother and baby Beans. Yes, a father too. Then they shrank and got canned really! Canned Beans they were called. Eventually, they climbed into what could be a matchbox, but that name could not be used, so they became Shoe Beans. I saw the last batch of Beans in a 1985 catalog.
One other doll branch needs mentioning. This one started in 1969. The work order read "Baby World," and three sculptors, John Cardner, Joyce Christopher, and Elinor Palagi, had made heads for a 4-inch baby. We understood by the term "Baby World" that layettes, furniture, and baby buggies would be needed. ] got all excited making a collapsible bed that turned into a bathtub and also a highchair to a lowchair to a who knows-what contraption. All preliminary models were child-tested. But in the end, because of its smallness, the whole project was dropped the next year.
By 1975, it was revived under the capable direction of Virginia Sergant who already showed her tremendous talent in directing and costuming The Sunshine Family Block.
Mattel had acquired the British firm Rosebud, and the baby project became Rosebud Babies. In Virginia's hands, the babies lived in a more or less Victorian-lacy world, with furniture to fit the image. I was privileged to finish, complete, and perfect the old "Baby Word" heads from ]969, give the 4-inch baby a body, and later even sculpt the body and the head for the 7-inch Rosebud Baby. This family flourished all the way into the 1980s. In fact:, two little Rosebud babies were reborn as the Hart Family children.
By 1975, I was a consultant with a contract and moved north to Cambria. California. At the same time, I started creating my own porcelain dolls. When my grandson was born in 1976, I modeled him and presented him in porcelain for collectors in a limited edition of 25. When my supervisor at Mattel, Aldo Favilli, saw my dolls, he wanted me to make Baby Alex Paul for Mattel.
I promised a similar, larger doll and made every effort to make him different from Alex. I even changed colors of outfit and blanket, but, in the end, everybody thought I had produced Alex in vinyl--Lov'n Touch Baby by Mattel. Lov'n Touch had its name from the very special vinyl skin that felt soft and good to the touch. A Lov'n Touch Sister followed.
Finally, I was asked to do Lov'n Touch Infant, just in time to use my second grandson for a model. Eventually, the baby's hands had to be changed to not have bitable fingers.
My answer to Cabbage Patch dolls was Beloved Belinda. I gave her that name. We were going to have her travel with suitcase and preparedness for distant places. Well, she didn't go anywhere except into a closet and probably out the door.
Other fun jobs followed, including a heroine for a science-fiction story for a Barbie body; a new family; and a Hawaiian Barbie for which an existing head was finally used. The Rainbow Babies were meant for a baby's first doll. By that time I could easily enjoy the Job without thinking of the production outcome. I only wish I could have kept the models.
I attempted to make a new Skipper, but he was not suitable.
You might wonder how I was so bold to title this "Twenty Years with Mattel." It is because some dolls outlasted my stay. And, of course, this happened in the Barbie kingdom.
In 1971, I took over a job from Joyce Christopher when she became ill and when the job was barely roughed out. The head was supposed to be Miss America among other things. I used all the skills of lip perfection I had just recently learned from Joyce, who had been my supervisor for the previous two years.
Steffie, Kelley, P.J., or whatever she was called then, had a mouth without a broad smile, and that fact gave her the opportunity--with different eye painting and hair--to be a stand-in whenever an extra female body was needed for Barbie activities. For example, behind a McDonald stand, behind the counter in the beauty shop, by the pool, at a wedding, or just for a good party to show off lavish clothes. Occasionally, her skin color would change, but not too often. To date, her name is Teresa and, who knows, she might make it into the year 2000.
For years, we had ideas of a museum, but I know now how costly it is to run one, not to mention display cases and lighting--not exactly a money-making proposition.
Who knows? Maybe three generations from now, collectors will want some of these characters in their collections.