The Santa Barbara Doll Club Show boasts quite a history. For the past five decades, the annual fair, sale, appraisal, and repair event has been posting up inside the Earl Warren Showgrounds to host collectors, enthusiasts, and casual doll lovers from all over the country. This Saturday, March 8, the event celebrates its 52nd year in conjunction with another important birthday: the 90th anniversary of Madame Alexander. Doll-savvy folk can recognize Alexander’s handiwork a mile away; her creations range in size from 8- to 16-inch figurines; all have sweetly cherubic features and are crafted with a painstaking eye for detail. Their clothes are works of art: tiny, multi-piece ensembles that replicate native garb from countries around the world, or storybook characters, or the ornate gowns of the first wives of United States.
I recently met with S.B. collector Kay Chambers, whose love for Madame Alexander was evident from the moment I stepped foot in her home. With a modest 40-doll collection to her name, Chambers admitted that she didn’t start collecting until much later in life. “When [toy store owner] Mrs. Kernohan died in 2003, I bought four of them at her family’s garage sale,” Chambers recalled. “We spent hours talking to her daughter, and after that I just started looking.”
Spurred by her experience at the Kernohans’ and her longstanding love of Alexander’s work, she began her hunt for more second-hand collectibles. As we talked, she pointed to each doll — an Eliza Doolittle, a Princess Josephine —explaining the story behind its arrival, as well as the condition it arrived in.
“New, they retail for over $100, and I’m not rich, so when I realized we could buy them for $15 or $25 and repair them to make them look like new, I started buying them like crazy,” she explained.
Chambers’s desire to “rescue” and restore the dolls is a large part of what makes her collection so special. Growing up in a middle-class home, she always admired her friends’ Madame Alexander dolls from afar. And now, as a grandmother of two, she’s happy to share her dolls — and their history — with a new generation. “I have two grandkids, 3 and 6, and they play with them and they enjoy them a lot. We take them out of the display cabinet one at a time and each one gets a ‘wow.’”
Chambers’s collection of Madame Alexander dolls will appear as part of the 52nd annual S.B. Doll Club Show, Saturday, March 8, Warren Hall, Earl Warren Showgrounds. For more info, call 733-1261 or visit earlwarren.com.