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  Winter 2012 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Winter 2012 issue.
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Terri Lee article 

The Best-Dressed Doll in the World: Nebraska’s Own Terri Lee ∙ Tina Koeppe

World War II had been over little more than a year when the Terri Lee doll entered the toy market in time for Christmas 1946. Invented and manufactured in Nebraska, the cherubic toddler doll and her elaborate wardrobe became an instant hit. Parents that lived through the deprivations of the Great Depression and wartime rationing wanted their children to have the best of everything, including beautiful toys. The company, founded and run by women, was ahead of its time, introducing plastic dolls, including several black dolls as early as 1947. Thanks to high-quality production standards, and clever marketing materials that promoted Terri Lee as a companion and not just a doll, the family cottage industry expanded rapidly. By 1950, the Terri Lee doll became one of the most prized and coveted toys of the baby boomer generation.

The story of the Terri Lee Company is full of stunning successes and heartbreaking misfortunes. The Terri Lee doll occupies a sacred place in the childhood memories of many women who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. More than just a doll, Terri Lee caught the hearts and imaginations of little girls in a revolutionary way. This is her story.

The Terri Lee doll was born in the kitchen of a small house in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1946. Maxine Runci, a young sculptress from California, had stopped in Omaha to visit her parents at her childhood home on Chicago Street.

Maxine, the second oldest of Florence and Jacob Sunderman’s four children, had shown an early aptitude for art. After graduation from Technical High School, she attended Municipal University and worked at the Orchard and Wilhelm Department Store, where she was in charge of the doll hospital. Discovering that she loved repairing and working on dolls, she opened a doll hospital in her home, with her mother and sisters helping.

Maxine desperately wanted to attend the Chicago Art Institute, but her father, a railroad worker, could not afford it. On July 12, 1936, The Omaha Bee-News published a cartoon drawn by twenty-one-year-old Maxine featuring Omaha’s seven county commissioners. An article that ran with the comic told about the aspiring young artist and how she worked at a department store to save money to attend the Chicago Art Institute.

The cartoon and article drew the attention of Omaha’s wealthy art patrons. Within a week, they raised funds to pay for four years at the Chicago Art Institute. Maxine excelled in her studies and focused on painting and sculpting.

After graduation Maxine moved to Los Angeles, where some of her siblings lived. In 1943 while sketching portraits of soldiers at the famous Hollywood Canteen, she met a handsome Marine named Edward Runci. When his turn came to be sketched, he asked Maxine out on a date. They were married that same year. Edward’s artistic skill matched Maxine’s and the young couple embarked on a happy and creative partnership. The Runcis are best known for their glamour and pinup calendar art (sometimes with Maxine modeling), but also made names for themselves as painters of celebrity portraits. The Runcis’ only child, a daughter named Drienne, was born July 9, 1944.

In early 1946, Maxine worked as a sculptor, creating heads for high-end department store mannequins. For months, she experimented with a design for a small mannequin that children could dress and play with. She designed a prototype that she planned to take to the annual American International Toy Fair in New York City. There had been no Toy Fair in 1945 due to World War II and retailers and manufacturers alike were reportedly eager to attend the 1946 Fair. Maxine wanted to display her doll prototype at the fair, with the hopes of finding a toy company interested in working with her.

Maxine took the train from California to New York City. Her traveling companion was her nineteen-month-old daughter, Drienne. Maxine planned to drop Drienne off in Omaha for some quality time with grandma and grandpa while she continued solo to New York City. While staying with her parents, Maxine found inspiration in her daughter, Drienne. She worked at her parents’ kitchen table and sculpted a sixteen-inch clay version of the toddler, complete with chubby legs and little protruding tummy. She made a mold for the doll, created a plaster-of-Paris prototype, made a horsehair wig and painted a cherubic face on it. Maxine’s mother sewed a sunsuit for the doll. Pleased with the result, Maxine decided to also take this new creation, which she called her “toddler doll,” to the Toy Fair.

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2012 issue.

Trans-Miss article 

Illuminating the West: The Wonder of Electric Lighting at Omaha’s Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898 – Amanda N. Johnson

A sudden hush came over thousands of people walking through a crowded fairground at dusk. Above the noise of the distant Midway, the nearby Marine Band struck up a patriotic tune, and the crowd emitted a collective gasp. The lights were turning on.

Twenty thousand incandescent bulbs lined eight major buildings surrounding the fair’s central lagoon. They lit up the sky in a slow progression. The electric fountain in front of the Government Building turned on first, its spray illuminated by colored lights disguised as lily pads, and whose light changed from green to blue to red to white. Atop the Government Building, the torch held by the statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” blazed to life next, a searchlight into the heavens. As an observer described it, “The lagoon is gemmed with light. The music of the band playing on the Plaza floats ‘like sweet sounds in a dream’; the barbarous cymbals of the Midway are softened into a far-away hum. There are thousands of people sitting on the steps of the buildings and around the lagoon; yet there is no noise of voices.” Then the “low spoken thrills of admiration for the inspiring loveliness of the picture” began.

Held in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1898, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was not the first public display of electric lighting. However, the fair’s official secretary, John Wakefield, claimed that its use of electricity surpassed all previous world’s expositions. “The buildings and exhibits will fade in memory,” he wrote, “but who can ever forget the inspiration and impressions produced by the illuminations which at night illuminated every turret, spire, and dome.”

Lighting was as important to the Omaha fair as the Ferris Wheel was to Chicago’s 1893 Colombian Exposition: a focal point that garnished publicity and gate receipts while demonstrating the West’s technological and economic progress.

The first World’s Fair occurred in London in 1851, an outgrowth of the tradition of craft and merchant fairs. In America, the Civil War interrupted the popularity of fairs until Chicago’s blockbuster 1893 Columbian Exposition, which was intended to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas. When Chicago, a relatively young, western city, was chosen over eastern cities to host the event, the fair also became a celebration of the West. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his famous Frontier Thesis at the exposition, claiming that the American frontier was the defining influence in developing the American consciousness, but that due to increasing population and scarcity of land in the West, the frontier had closed.6 Citizens of the trans-Mississippi states insisted that their region still offered new frontiers to conquer, and planned their own expositions to promote this idea.

“To say that world’s fairs have exerted a formative influence on the way Americans have thought about themselves and the world in which they live probably understates the importance of those expositions,” says Robert Rydell in Fair America. Indeed, world’s fairs were essential in forming American culture, especially in their introduction of new technologies and the insertion of these technologies into everyday life. Electricity was an important part of these displays. Historian David Nye argues that the fairs used electricity to create an ideal world, controlled by man, the synthetic preferred over the natural. “World’s Fairs are always designed as special spaces . . . A world apart. A world that represents the future. A world that’s more perfect, better designed, clean, organized.”  Electric lighting visually intensified the contrast between the beautiful White Cities of late nineteenth century fairs and the frequently dirty reality of the host cities with their own poor or irregular lighting.

The Omaha exposition’s use of electric lighting was so memorable partly because so few of the spectators had seen it before. Living in rural areas, many western settlers did not have access to electricity. Yet the exposition claimed to be a representation of the West. How could fair organizers claim to represent western accomplishments by displaying something that western people hadn’t seen before? One answer is that they didn’t intend to represent the current West, but the West of the future, a West of technological progress. The exhibit’s message was that the West was becoming advanced, progressive, and ready to challenge eastern dominance. Eastern reporters got the message, as noted in Harper’s Weekly: “It is perhaps this fine panorama of the material West which is here afforded, that most will interest. Cast in a different figure, this Trans-Mississippi Exposition is an epitome of the wealth—and not only of the wealth, but of the progress—of the great central region of the nation.”

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2012 issue.


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