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DOLL HOSPITAL RE-CREATES CHILDHOOD DREAMS

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Mary never played with dolls. More of a tomboy, she enjoyed "Kick the Can." Even after her marriage to Don in 1937, she never would have dreamed that dolls would become such a major portion of her life.

Three years into their marriage, though, she began painting figurines to occupy herself while Don was gone to work as a building contractor.Before long, people were asking her to paint doll faces, which turned into searches for lost limbs, and before she knew it, without intending to, she had started a business that would occupy her time for more than 50 years.

When they moved into their home on south State Street in 1947, Mary confined her dolls to a single room. Then she moved into a small shop behind the house. Many long-time customers recall entering Mary's shop by going down the Davidson's driveway.

Somewhere along the way, her dolls merged with the interests of their son, Terry, who had loved and collected antiques from the time he was a boy. A psychotherapist by profession, he wanted to open an antique shop as relaxation from the pressures of his work.

It was at that time that Davidson's Doll Hospital - and antiques - expanded into the main floor of the Davidson residence. Don and Mary tucked their living area into where it would fit and haven't seemed to mind the overflow of dolls and collectibles that cascade from room to room with each passing year.

There have been tough times, though, like in 1977, when their place was broken into and thieves made off with more than $50,000 worth of dolls. But today the shelves are piled to the brim again, with dolls from every era. In the room where Mary does most of her work, the area around her sewing machine is stacked with dolls tagged for repair. She keeps close tabs on her patients.

People can get really emotional about dolls. During my visit, a customer came in with a "composition" doll (a doll with a head of pressed paper) and told how her mother had given her one just like it when she was a child.

Somewhat fragile, the head would keep breaking. Finally, it broke so bad that the mother discarded it. During a visit home, the daughter was disappointed to learn it had been thrown away.

Now finally, after finding a doll like the original, she was bringing it in for a checkup. As she explained about finding it, her voice broke and she wiped an embarrassing tear from her eye.

Such emotions, Mary explained, are typical. Dolls do something to people.

Like the woman who, many years ago, went into the old Paris department store with her daughter. The daughter saw a "Patsy" doll and immediately fell in love with it. The mother winked at the clerk to put it on layaway for Christmas, and continued shopping. Before leaving, the daughter wanted to go back and look at the doll one more time. Seeing it was no longer there, she was so distraught that the mother was tempted to tell her she had gotten it for her. But she didn't.

On Christmas morning, when the girl saw the doll in a rocker under the tree she broke into tears like a mother who had found a lost child.

"Oh," she wept, "I thought I'd lost you forever."

It was so touching, in fact, that the entire family began crying. Needless to say, that doll became a prized possession of her childhood.

Then there was the little girl who came in with a "Saucy Walker" doll that wouldn't walk anymore.

Thinking she would put the girl at ease, Mary said, "What should I feed her while she's here?"

The girl piped up, "Oh, she loves spaghetti!"

Later, when Mary got into the doll she found the insides stuffed with - you guessed it - dried-up spaghetti. In fact, that's what was jamming the legs so it couldn't walk.

I told Mary about how Veloy had wanted a "Toni" doll when she was a girl, and how when she finally got it, it was a real "Toni," and how disappointed she was.

Mary smiled, "All the time," she says, "I have people come in with what they think are `Toni' dolls, but aren't. `Toni's were so expensive that parents would often get cheaper dolls and tell their children they were `Toni's.' Some people get pretty insistent about the authenticity of their `Toni's.' "

The Davidson's cats (Skittle, Charley, Monday, Tina and Alley) and two tiny dogs (Sparky and Jeanie), who were all taken in off the streets, sit out on the walk, or curl up by the cash register, lending to the "Santa's workshop" aura which Davidson's Doll Hospital evokes.

The broad bungalow porch and French doors seem to draw you in. Fresh snow piled on neatly trimmed hedges and an arbored entrance make you feel like the people who run this place could be related to elves.

More pragmatic than elfin, Mary Davidson just knows dolls, she enjoys running a business that helps people reconstruct a small, tangible corner of their childhood dreams.