Raggedy Ragtime Rags

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Glamorous she is not. Her clothes are plain, her red hair unruly and her face usually dirty, from savoring too many dainties at tea parties.

But this young girl, who is truly a doll, boasts a gamine expression and delightful simplicity that has captivated generations.

And these days 70-year-old Raggedy Ann is no ordinary plaything. Adults like Wheaton`s Richard Zvirzin, one of the country`s leading collectors of Ann and her brother Andy, covet these cloth cuties.

'One just wasn`t enough,' said the proud owner of about 4,000 of the mop-topped moppets. 'Then 10 wasn`t enough and then 100 wasn`t enough. I`m always saying, `If I could just find one more . . . .` It`s a habit.'

What began as an innocent hobby for the 30-year-old Zvirzin, an antique-doll and toy dealer, has burgeoned into a relentless quest. He spends most of his leisure hours cultivating sources and following leads in hopes of snaring another Ann or Andy for his astonishing collection, which occupies an entire room and the attic of his home.

Raggedy-mania is a breathtaking spectacle, indeed. On a recent visit, a normally glib reporter was speechless when she stepped inside the converted bedroom and saw nothing but Ann and Andys from floor to ceiling. 'Instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, I decorate with wall-to-wall doll,' Zvirzin said.

'This is my haven from the outside world.'

Every nook and cranny is a cornucopia of children`s dreams. Raggedy Ann and Andy share a treat around an ice cream table and are taken for strolls in an old wicker doll buggy. It`s hard not to smile when you encounter thousands of dolls ranging in size from 3 inches to 8 feet perched on shelves that look down upon awestruck guests or see hundreds of pairs of sparkling eyes gazing at you from behind two glass cases.

Ragtime

There is no method to this Raggedy Ann and Andy madness. The dolls are arranged in no specific order. A well-cared for Ann may sit next to an Andy who has lost an arm or all of his clothing. The larger dolls often hold the smaller ones on their lap as if they were cradling a younger family member.

The 'orphans' reside in the the attic, Zvirzin said. 'These are the Ann and Andys that have been brutally neglected and abused. They`re not worth a whole lot, but they still have a place in my heart.' He added that many of the dolls that are still in their original boxes are also stored there.

He finds it extremely difficult to select a favorite doll, but he acknowledges that he thinks the earlier ones convey a 'special magic. They have a primitive look that I really love. You can`t beat the feeling of the wooden heart inside the doll. But I love them all.'

Zvirzin has always had a special kinship with the duo, he said: 'They are childhood memories. I had an Ann and Andy I had gotten as gifts and I remember going to the laundromat when they were really dirty and they would come out of the washing machine and their hair would have shrunk. Then we`d throw them in the dryer and they`d take forever because the cotton batting was so thick.'

As a tyke, he accompanied his parents, who are also in the antiques business, to flea markets and shows. Zvirzin was 5 when he started his collection. He spotted a Raggedy Ann in a store and it was love at first sight, he said. 'There was a bond between us. I just had to have her.'

Zvirzin`s mother, Nancy, recalls her son bagging his first big bargain:

'One day when he was about 9 and had the day off from school, we went to a garage sale. It was about 2 in the afternoon and sitting on a table was an older Raggedy Ann in mint condition, with its tags still on, selling for 50 cents.

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'He wanted to buy it and I asked him, `Why would you want this?` He answered, `She waited all day for us.` '

So the Raggedy Ann joined the others along with Richard`s G.I. Joe and space toys on a shelf in his room, Nancy said. 'As he got older everything but Ann and Andy went. I never expected that it would bloom into this.'

Zvirzin`s pursuit of the pair has become legendary in doll-collecting circles and has earned him the moniker 'Rags,' or 'the Rag Man,' among his cohorts.

'I was at a show and I bought an Ann and Andy from one of the dealers,' said Zvirzin. 'I went back on another occasion and the dealer must have forgotten my name. She screamed out, `Rags, come here. I`ve got something for you.` The name stuck.'

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He is now regarded as one of the nation`s top Rag men.

'I have never encountered anyone with his expertise,' noted Susan Manos, an antique doll dealer and collector for 24 years and the author of three Barbie books. 'A lot of people brag that they know a lot about Raggedy Ann. But Raggedy Ann and Andy are very complex collectibles. There is no one I`d run to other than Richard if I wanted information.'

Admittedly, the former floral shop manager is a man possessed. Any Raggedy Zvirzin encounters, regardless of the doll`s condition, captures a place in his heart.

'Whether they are dirty, missing an eye, part of their clothes or beat to all heck, they have a certain aura, a well-loved look. I just want to take it and give it a good home. You know that doll was much loved by a child and it`s a piece of that child`s life.'

That was the intent of Johnny Gruelle, a cartoonist, author and illustrator who created Raggedy Ann in 1914 for his frail daughter Marcella. One day while exploring the attic, she discovered an old rag doll, which had belonged to her grandmother, in a trunk. The doll`s clothes were tattered and the face was so faded and worn that Marcella asked her father to give it a new one.

With a bit of whimsy the native of Arcola, Ill., bestowed the doll with shiny shoe buttons for eyes and then handpainted the rest of her features: a triangle nose, thin eyebrows and a perpetual grin.

Of course the doll needed a name. Marcella christened it Raggedy Ann after one of Gruelle`s comic strips. The two became inseparable, and the frequently bedridden Marcella would be entertained by her dad`s recitation of Raggedy Ann`s adventures.

When his daughter died in 1916, the grief-stricken Gruelle placed her cherished companion on his desk. Inspired by the doll`s presence and to cope with his sorrow, he began writing down the Raggedy Ann tales that had enthralled Marcella and which later would immortalize her as the heroine of all his Raggedy Ann books.

Two years later, 'Raggedy Ann Stories' was published by P.F. Volland Co., the first in a long series. To promote the new work, a Raggedy Ann was made to accompany the book for a department store window. The display attracted many customers, but ironically, everyone wanted to buy the doll.

The demand for the cuddly toy astonished the Gruelles and spawned a cottage industry. Family members gathered around several sewing machines and assembled about 200 Raggedy Anns. These handmade dolls reflected the sentiments of their originator, boasting a thick cardboard heart tucked inside their chests.

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According to one of Gruelle`s yarns, the piece of cardboard was actually a candy heart that proclaimed, 'I love you.' While the dolls have always had a heart in one form or another, the sentiment is more prominent today. It`s expressed on Ann and Andy`s chests in a printed heart under their clothing.

The public was so enamored with Raggedy Ann that in 1918, Volland decided to produce her. She now bears the distinctive title of being the country`s oldest licensed character. Naturally Ann wanted a playmate and soon brother Andy was born. For nearly three decades, the author wrote numerous tales featuring the cloth kids and Marcella.

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The dolls became such perpetual favorites among the nursery set that a line of Raggedy Ann and Andy paraphernalia, running the gamut from dishes to linens, was offered. Even today, dozens of new items are marketed yearly, a testament to the couple`s illustrious reputation.

Surprisingly, no one would ever guess the Raggedys` ages from their appearance. Like the earliest renditions, Ann wears a calico dress, white pinafore and pantaloons; Andy, a natty nautical hat, gingham shirt, blue trousers. Both sport red-and-white-striped stockings.

Nonetheless, being all dolled up for the masses has slightly changed the pair. They`ve had subtle facelifts, which can be discerned by keen collectors, and hair color variations, the result of six different manufacturers. They are currently made by Applause and Hasbro in myriad sizes.

Zvirzin believes Raggedy Ann and Andy still exude a homespun charm:

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'They express a feeling of love. No matter what kind of day you`ve had, when you see their mischievous smile it means they love you or are thinking something funny. That picks you up and it`s as if the rest of the world doesn`t exist.'

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He attributes their enduring popularity to the fact that the rag dolls are not only folk art but also an American tradition appealing to all ages.

'Raggedy Ann and Andy are for kids to love and to play with and for adults to collect and treasure. They are always there for you.'