As Barbie turns 50, women share memories and meaning of the doll who has it all
March 8, 2009 9:00 AM
Anne Flanagan's childhood Barbie doll with a collection of original clothes.
An old photo of Kim Fancsali holding her first Barbie doll on her back porch when she was about 5 years old.
Kim Fancsali of Pleasant Hills with her four-season Barbie dolls. She has about 600 Barbie dolls.
By L.A. Johnson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Barbie Millicent Roberts turns fabulous 50 tomorrow. (Birthday cake and candles sold separately.)
And she's not doing too badly for an old broad.
The leggy, oft-blond Barbie still maintains her buxom figure and thrives in whatever career she endeavors, whether she's a figure skater, an astronaut, a presidential candidate or a soldier.
Since her debut as Barbie the Teenage Fashion Model on March 9, 1959, she has lived a glamorous and adventure-filled life, from the sands of her Malibu Beach House to the deck of her Party Cruise yacht.
Millions of adults worldwide still love toymaker Mattel's signature 111/2-inch-tall bombshell because she brings back fond childhood memories.
Barbies can be found in almost every room of Kim Fancsali's Pleasant Hills home, save the bathrooms and her son's bedroom. She estimates she has more than 600 Barbie dolls.
She received her first one -- a 1963 red-headed Bubble Cut Barbie that she still owns -- at age 3, but didn't seriously play with them until she was 8 or 9. She also had Francie, Stacie and Ken.
"Ken was kind of boring," says Mrs. Fancsali, 49, who one day hopes to have a room dedicated to Barbie. "He was a boyfriend, but he wasn't as fun to dress."
She stopped playing with Barbies around 12, but as an adult started collecting them in 1988 after seeing the first Holiday Barbie.
"She was absolutely gorgeous," says Mrs. Fancsali, who didn't buy that one but owns the 19 other Holiday Barbies that have come out since then. "I could kick myself."
That 1988 Holiday Barbie now goes for upward of $600.
In addition to Holiday Barbies, she has Dolls of the World Barbies, Wizard of Oz Barbies, Gone With the Wind Barbies and a variety of celebrity Barbies, including Cher.
"If it's on clearance, I'll buy it," she says.
She has slowed her collecting because she's running out of storage space. Barbies fill 15 bins in her basement. Boxed collector Barbies are three to four deep on the shelves of several floor-to-ceiling bookcases. She keeps dozens of other Barbies on stands in display cases.
"I figure you have to enjoy them," she says, explaining why she doesn't keep them all in their boxes.
However, the value of most dolls decreases by half once they're removed from the box, especially newer dolls, says J. Michael Augustyniak, author of several collectors' books on Barbie, including "Collector's Encyclopedia of Barbie Doll 2008: Identification & Values."
"If a person owned one of every [type] Barbie ever made, including foreign editions, they would number more than 10,000 dolls," he says.
An updated version of the No. 1 black-and-white striped bathing suit Barbie goes on sale tomorrow. The new 2009 Bathing Suit Barbie, complete with new face sculpt, for this week will only cost $3, the price of the 1959 original.
Many Barbie fans can recount, with surprising detail, some of the more interesting mishaps their Barbies have endured.
On Christmas Day in 1962, 10-year-old Betsy Jevsevar Schreck received a Fashion Queen Barbie that came with three interchangeable wigs -- one blond, one brunette, one red. She meticulously put them away that morning before heading to breakfast and off to church. She made a beeline for them the second she returned home.
"I hurried downstairs ... opened the box ... and the wigs were all gone," says Mrs. Schreck, 56, of Dormont.
While searching for them high and low, she noticed something odd and unusually colorful about the Nativity scene.
"Lo and behold!" she says. "Each of the Wise Men was wearing one of the wigs!"
The culprit: her brother, Butch.
Mrs. Fancsali came home from school one day in the 1970s to find a headless Barbie on the floor.
"What happened to my doll?" she screamed.
Her stepfather told her he didn't think she played with her Barbies anymore. He'd put Barbie's head in a radio-controlled airplane.
"I thought she was a hot babe and she could fly my airplane," he told her.
The two took the radio-controlled plane, complete with Barbie's head, out for a test flight. Unfortunately, the plane flew over a hillside and crashed. The wreckage was irretrievable.
"She's dead. She's dead," Mrs. Fancsali remembers crying. Her stepfather also was quite upset about the $200 in radio-controlled equipment he lost.
Barbie, an ambitious and accomplished woman, has had 108 careers to date, including nurse, doctor, surgeon, gold medal gymnast, WNBA player, "American Idol" winner and Seaworld trainer, according to Mattel Inc.
Of course, juggling many demanding careers can wreak havoc on the most stable of relationships. Barbie and her longtime beau, Ken, broke up on Valentine's Day 2004 but remain friends. It's rumored he wants her back.
Anne Flanagan's Barbie recollections -- of long, hot summer days spent on a neighbor's front porch, enveloped in a Barbie world of cases, clothes, houses and campers -- make her happy, just as playing with Barbie for countless hours did when she was a child.
She tried to pass on the Barbie passion and tradition to her progeny, buying her three daughters carts of Barbie accessories, but it proved fruitless.
"There were no brothers, but somehow their dolls were dismembered," says Mrs. Flanagan, 48, of Hampton. "That was my first clue that the Barbie gene was missing."
Still, she's packed away her daughters' Barbie dolls, cases and clothes on the off chance that the Barbie gene skips a generation.
At 50, it's likely that Barbie will continue to be around for generations to come because of her ability to change with the times. When roller-skating was popular, there was Roller Skater Barbie. When the Jane Fonda workout was all the rage, there was Great Shape Barbie. When rap music was emerging, there was even Rappin' Rockin' Barbie, complete with boom box. Barbie first ran for president in 1992, then again in 2000, 2004 and 2008.
"It's uncanny how Mattel has couched Barbie in the popular culture," Mr. Augustyniak says.
Some have criticized Barbie as more bimbo than businesswoman, charging she's a poor role model for young girls because she's materialistic, curvaceous and focuses on her appearance. Last week, a West Virginia state lawmaker proposed banning Barbie sales, saying she emphasizes beauty over brains. But her fans don't see her that way.
"You played with her and it was fun, make-believe," Mrs. Fancsali says. "She was plastic. To me, it was unrealistic to look like Barbie. She was a doll."
However, she concedes that she'd be thrilled to be built like Barbie at 50.
"I'm more like Barbie's fat aunt," she says. "When did you ever see anybody with a waist that small? Even when I was a size 9 my waist wasn't that small."
As a little girl, Roxanne Tuinstra didn't know women who went to college or worked outside the home. She lived out her fantasies through Barbie. Her favorite and only surviving Barbie is Doctor Barbie.
"A lot of people misrepresent Barbie as a toy that puts down your self-esteem," says Mrs. Tuinstra, 31, of Observatory Hill. "When I played with Barbie, it wasn't about how big her [breasts] were or how small her waist was. It was about how Barbie could be anything -- a doctor, an astronaut. To me, Barbie exemplified the perfect working woman."