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Local woman’s doll collection fills home and heart

Arlene Barth with a few of the thousands of dolls in her collection (Renee Claire)
Arlene Barth with a few of the thousands of dolls in her collection (Renee Claire)

Walk around Arlene Barth’s eastside Tucson home and you will find over 2,300 pairs of eyes looking your way.

Barth, RN, MSN and captain (retired) from the U.S. Public Health Service began collecting dolls in 1996. They are present in every room of her home; organized on tables, spilling off shelves, posed on floors and propped on nearly every household surface. Plus, her three-car garage hasn’t seen a car in years. Now an air-conditioned space, the garage houses the bulk of the collection, where Barth has arranged thousands of dolls — many of them recognizable figures from the past — in dioramas such as beach parties, motorcycle outings, hospital scenes, weddings, tea parties, skiing scenes, restaurant vignettes, Western themes and designer boutiques.

The Bob Mackie Le Papillon™ Barbie Doll® sports a designer gown.
The Bob Mackie Le Papillon™ Barbie Doll® sports a designer gown.

For anyone who played with dolls in the 20th century, this collection can’t fail to bring smiles of recognition. Seeing the lovingly restored and displayed figures made this reporter feel as if she were seeing old friends reappear after decades of absence. Everyone is here, from bisque Kewpie dolls (popular at the turn of the last century and based on illustrations from the 1909 Ladies Home Journal), to Ginny dolls, Charlie McCarthy, Barbie, Ken, Chatty Cathy and Howdy Doodie. The Berenstain Bears, Trolls, Cabbage Patch Kids, Disney characters, Muppets and so many more are in evidence. How Barth assembled her collection, though, tells another story.

“I began rescuing dolls as a way to handle the stress that I was experiencing in my job,” Barth explains. “My work as a U.S. public health nurse was a hugely important part of my life. Toward the end of my 20-year career I was the chief nurse at the prison in Florence, a nurse consultant for other prison nurses, and I wrote manuals for the USPHS nursing corps. I enjoyed my work tremendously and I was good at it.” As proof, Barth proudly displays a scrapbook over six inches thick, comprised of awards and commendations for her work. “I won’t ever understand why,” she says, “but I found myself dealing with superiors that were determined to sabotage my career.”

To avoid having to work alongside such people, Barth chose night shift assignments. Still, she says, her boss found ways to make her professional life miserable. She’d leave work so stressed that she was unable to sleep. So instead of driving directly home after work, she frequented local thrift stores where she found dolls that had been discarded and were in need of repair. “I brought the dolls home, washed them and repaired damaged ones. My friend Ruth Fahden, who has golden hands, would make outfits for some of them, so together we would restore the dolls and clothe them beautifully.”

Arlene Barth’s doll collection fills her eastside Tucson home — and her three-car garage.
Arlene Barth’s doll collection fills her eastside Tucson home — and her three-car garage.

The detailed workmanship of the costumes is remarkable; many of the outfits are of designer quality. “I found comfort in caring for the dolls. In my searches I would come across specialty dolls that attracted me as well, so I started buying some of those, too.” Barth displays antique dolls, commemorative dolls and models of personalities such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Vanna White. Particularly striking is a baby doll whose head has three rotating faces on it. “When I found that one in an antique store here in Tucson, they were really happy to sell it to me as they thought it was too creepy,” she says chuckling. “But they all have a place with me.”

Barth has display cases where she has arranged her more “collectable” dolls. She has scores of fancy Barbies that have been dressed by haute couturier Bob Mackie and “Gene” dolls inspired by Hollywood’s Golden Age that designer Mel Odom costumed.

“My collecting hobby had me busy and engaged at a very difficult time in my life and I feel like it kept me from indulging in self-destructive stress-relief like drinking or drugs,” she says. Not that there wasn’t some stress involved in populating the home she shared with her husband, Randy Barth, with thousands of dolls.

“He made me stop because the dolls and my other collections (Roseville pottery and art prints, particularly those by Itzchak Tarkay) were taking over the house. When the garage started to fill up with my dioramas and display cases, he threw down a piece of carpeting and that was the dividing line that I couldn’t cross with any dolls.” Widowed since 2007, Barth keeps the carpet in place as a memento, but the dolls have now marched over the line and taken up residence throughout every square foot of garage space. The astonishing colors and variety and the playfulness of the collection present a stark contrast to the dark circumstances responsible for its existence.

The genesis of the collection had its seeds in discrimination. Barth found it necessary to file Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against her supervisor in the U.S. Public Health Service because of his efforts to force her out of work and prevent her from receiving pension and retirement benefits. “Things had been really bad,” says Barth, “but when I asked to have Yom Kippur off in 1997 and was refused with the flimsiest of reasons, I realized that I had to step up and take on the fight.” Barth contends that it was a real David vs. Goliath situation but she had documentation to demonstrate her competence and achievements so she moved forward.

Prior to the Yom Kippur episode, EEOC complaints hadn’t garnered Barth any relief from workplace harassment. But with the Anti-Defamation League taking on her case, real momentum occurred. “With the ADL’s assistance, my complaints came to the attention of the attorney general’s office and once the Department of Justice got involved, my attorney could confidently move forward and fight for me.” Though Barth was forced to retire in 1998, her case was resolved through mediation and she received a settlement from the military. Today she enjoys all earned benefits commensurate with her rank as captain.

“I didn’t take the typical route for a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn,” admits Barth. “I went through basic training in Georgia as well as specialized training for the Bureau of Prisons. I learned self-defense and had to become proficient with a pistol, a shotgun and the M16. I must have been the only Jewish person in the training.”

For now, Barth is contemplating how to organize more opportunities for children to come and see her dolls. “People always ask me what I’m going to do with my collection,” she says. “For now I’m planning on just enjoying it.”

Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.