Home on east side is a refuge for dolls

Collector began 'rescuing' them in '96, has 2,600
2013-08-01T00:00:00Z 2013-10-23T10:11:06Z Home on east side is a refuge for dollsLuis F. Carrasco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

At Arlene Barth's place it's not unusual to see Jacqueline Kennedy sharing a smile with Princess Diana, to spot Shirley Temple watched over by G.I. Joe or to find Barbie at a Blues Brothers concert.

Barth, 62, has transformed her east-side home into a doll refuge, bringing together about 2,600 dolls.

She began collecting in 1996, when stress at work and a late-night schedule fueled the need and opportunity for her hobby.

"This was my therapy. I couldn't sleep when I came home from work so instead of just staying in the house, I'd go to thrift shops," she said. "It made me feel like I was doing a good deed, rescuing these dolls that probably would have been thrown out. Nobody wanted them, and they were speaking to me."

When she retired in 1998 after 20 years as a nurse in the U.S. Public Health Service, her work-related stress ended but her collecting was just beginning.

"I just kept buying and buying and buying them. I'd buy 10 at a time and pay $10 for them," she said. Store owners "came to recognize me when I came in to the shops. They'd call me the 'Doll Lady,' and they'd say, 'Oh, we saved you a couple of dolls.' "

Barth would take the dolls home, clean them, shampoo their hair and try to fix their outfits as well as she could, but her talents were limited. She asked at an antiques mall if they knew anyone who could repair dolls, and that led her to Ruth Fahden.

An award-winning doll designer, Fahden seemed like an odd fit for someone looking to fix up thrift store rescues. But Barth had found a kindred spirit.

"Ruth understands. The doll that's worth maybe thousands is just as valuable as the one whose arm got chewed off," Barth said. "She puts as much effort into restoring that one as she would to a very expensive antique doll."

Fahden, 89, has repaired almost 40 of the dolls and dressed at least as many, Barth said. And even when she can't fix them, they improvise.

"We have one doll that we could not repair the arm on - the hand was missing - but we wanted to save the doll. So what I did was make the costume and give her a fur muff," Fahden said.

Looking at Barth's collection it's impossible to not notice the care that's gone into every doll. While her collection is eclectic, it never seems haphazard. And the philosophy of "doll equality" is everywhere.

Her garage, where most of the collection is housed, has several standing glass display cabinets where expensive, delicate dolls share space with plastic knickknacks. On the floor Barth has arranged "vignettes" - "a visit to the hospital," "a day at the beach," "the camping trip" - where dolls of every shape and size interact.

"They're not perfect, like if you see, the hat might be too big or the pocketbook too big. I like to do that - it just makes it more … whimsical," Barth said.

Since she acquired many of her dolls from thrift shops and antique malls, Barth said she likes to think of their history and how they came to be where they are.

"Each one has a story and especially the ones that you can hold, the baby dolls, somebody was holding them when they were children. To me, in this disposable age, it's nice to have things from the past around."

With the popularity of dolls on the wane, Fahden said people like Barth are more important than ever.

"Arlene is a very compassionate person. She is probably the greatest doll rescuer of vintage dolls that I could ever meet. She's a collector and a preservationist."

Barth, whose husband died in 2007, said her dolls continue to get her through tough times.

"When I come in I just forget everything negative. I could spend hours in here, really hours," she said. "Even though they're not living and breathing, it's still something really positive I have in my life."

Email Luis Carrasco at lcarrasco@azstarnet.com or call him at 807-8466.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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