A Holiday of Tonner Fashion Dolls

Article by member Sandy Pelphrey published in The Weekly Villager.

tonner holiday
This past December Cleveland Doll Club meeting found me doing something I have grown to look forward to and love. This is to share my passion and collection of dolls with fellow collectors.

I presented a program for CDC on Robert Tonner dolls. The program started out to be about his holiday dolls. When I had talked with my two daughters, Jamie and Tommie Jo about this program we began to compare notes and dolls in our collections and thought we needed to include a few from each group of Tonner’s that we owned. To our surprise we ended up with 5 – 6 foot tables loaded with samples of our little jewels and still left many at home.

We started the program with a short history of Robert Tonner and his passion for fashion which after several years on 5th avenue in New York City turned into one of the country’s most successful doll artists and manufacturers.

Tonner dolls include fashion dolls such as Tyler Wentworth, Kitty Collier, Cami, and many more.

Tonner Doll Company, Inc. was founded in 1991 by Robert Tonner under the original name Robert Tonner Doll Designs. In February 1991, RTDD made its public debut at the American International Toy Fair in New Your City, multi-jointed porcelain fashion dolls and jointed porcelain child dolls were displayed at the fair in limited editions ranging in price from $650 to $1500.

By 1992 RTDD was well on its way to becoming a prosperous enterprise.

In 1995, Tonner Doll gained licensing rights for the recreation of the 1950s paper doll Betsy McCall, for reintroduction to the collectors market. To keep the cost down for collectors, Tonner decided to produce the doll in China. Made from vinyl, the Betsy McCall license was one of the initial mainstream commercial successes of the company.

Over the coming years, RTDD began to grow the size of its staff to accommodate the rising demand. This growth lead the company to be renamed the Tonner Doll Company. By the year 2000 Tonner Doll employed 24 people including designers, marketers, and various sales and administrative staff.

Since the 1995 issue of Betsy McCall doll, Tonner has gained the rights and recreated doll designs for movies such as 1997’s Titanic, (Kate Winslet), and 1999’s Star Wars Episode I. In 2006, Tonner Doll gained licensing rights to recreate the cast of the Harry Potter series, as well as Memoirs of a Geisha.

Tonner Doll has licensed comic book heroes and villains from DC Comics for their DC Stars Collection. The line includes 13, 17, and 22 inch dolls, including various versions of Aquaman, Batgirl, Batman, Black Canary, Catwoman, Green Lantern, Harley Quinn, Lois Lane, Supergirl, Superman, Wonder Woman and Poison Ivy.

Tonner did not stop there. The company also licensed the Twilight Saga, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend, Chicago (2002) film, Dreamgirls, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, Mary Engelbreit’s Ann Estelle, Fancy Nancy, Theatre de la Mode, Dick Tracy, Get Smart, Disney Pricesses, Mary poppins, Davy Crockett, Pirates of the Caribbean, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Miss Piggy, Miss America and characters from the comic strip, For Better or For Worse by Lynn Johnston.

One of the latest license and one of my favorites  is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) film, also Lord of the Rings, Disney’s Prince of Persia, and Disney Princess Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s first Aftican-American Princess.

In 2002 Tonner Doll purchased the Effanbee Doll Company, Inc. to obtain the rights to several classic characters from the company’s century-old history. They gained exclusive rights to Bernard Lipfert’s 1928 Patsy doll, Patsyette. Effanbee also had the rights to reproduce fashion dolls licensed by Tribune Media like the Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter series, another of my favorites.

Brenda Starr was rolled out in first class style during a Tonner Convention in Chicago. We as attendees were bussed from our hotel to a downtown newly re-opened 1940’s night club called The Black Orchid. The entire evening was as if we were taken back in time. The doll presented after dinner that evening was named Black Orchid in honor of the occasion. What a beautiful evening and a doll to match.

tonner holiday 2One other favorite of my Tonner dolls I did bring to share was the 22” American model OOAK, one of a kind artist dolls gifted to me for Christmas by Robert in honor of my Mother whom we had lost the year prior to ALS. Robert had done an OOAK doll for our Cleveland Doll Club luncheon charity for ALS that year. This, showing not only the passion Robert Tonner has for dolls but also his compassion for the collectors and so many charities that he has given to and contributed to over the years.

I was very appreciative to be able to share with a doll club once again part of my collection and experiences of collecting this art form known as dolls. As always it is my desire along with my fellow collectors to advance doll collecting and preserve its history. I trust and believe it was an afternoon enjoyed by all.


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