Weekly Feature

2014-09-10 / Local News

WNY woman brings passion for dolls to Kenwell


Kenwell resident Ruth Ricketts views dolls in Buffalo resident Virginia Grabiner’s Terri Lee collection. Kenwell resident Ruth Ricketts views dolls in Buffalo resident Virginia Grabiner’s Terri Lee collection. Virginia Grabiner of Buffalo will never forget her first Terri Lee doll. She was 8 years old, with $15 of birthday money in her pocket.

“My mom took me to the local toy store, and there, on a high shelf was a line of beautiful dolls,” said Grabiner. “I pointed to the one with the red hair, like mine. We took her home and from then on she was my favorite doll.”

A former sociology teacher at Buffalo State College, Grabiner is spending her spare time sharing her love of Terri Lee dolls, bringing her collection of 50-plus Terri Lee dolls to area senior living communities such as Kenwell, a DePaul Senior Living Community in Kenmore.

Started in 1945 in Nebraska, the Terri Lee doll company has an interesting and innovative history, Grabiner said.

Founder Violet Gradwohl enlisted her niece, artist Maxine Runci, to craft the first doll. Runci modeled it after her own daughter, and the doll was named Terri after Gradwohl’s own daughter. In the company’s first few years, they employed women working in their homes to produce the dolls’ clothes. The patterns were made from the best materials, with more than 300 outfits available.

Terri Lee was among the first to manufacture African-American dolls, which were named Benji and Bonnie Lou. Because they could not get satisfactory brown plastic, each black doll was hand-painted. According to Grabiner, these dolls can sell for between $500 and $2,000 today. Terri Lee also produced a doll modeled after a real infant.

“Terri Lee dolls don’t do anything,” said Grabiner. “Their legs don’t bend, their eyes don’t blink, they don’t walk or talk. The little girl was supposed to supply the imagination.

In 2000, there was an attempt to revive Terri Lee Associates, but the company was unable to compete with the now-popular American Girl dolls.

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