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Escape Artist
Written by Stephanie Finnegan   
Tuesday, 27 July 2010 19:10
One of the most exciting aspects of being a doll collector is that owning a doll can help you escape your daily woes, your everyday travails. Less costly than an airplane ticket, easier to book than a cruise, a doll is a vehicle for transporting us to different mind frames and unfamiliar terrain.

When the collectibles in question are fantasy-based, the exotic nuances are even easier to behold. Who doesn’t love the thrill of an otherworldly quest, a foray into fanciful people, places and things? With the jubilation that Dorothy must have felt when she swung open her sepia-toned farmhouse door and was greeted with the Technicolor blooms of Oz, doll collectors are in for hours of merriment and amusement when they invite a charming sorceress or a dashing prince into their homes.

Just as every successful fairytale kingdom has a wise and benevolent king who reigns over the populace, this year’s batch of first-rate fantasy dolls is presided over by Robert Tonner, owner and CEO of Tonner Doll Co., proving once again his versatility, his incredible eye for details and, most important, his affinity for the subject matter.

“I’ve always loved fantasy, science fiction and, well, a good story!” Tonner exclaims. “The projects that I go after usually have one or more of those elements. There are certainly those projects that I have always wanted to do because I grew up with them—the DC characters, for instance. But, truly, it’s the fantasy of these stories that I love.”

True to his heart, Tonner has tackled a host of fantasy projects that appeal to the inner comic-book collector who resides in all of us. If you’ve ever cheered for the swashbuckling hero as he swings from a mast on high or beamed when a chaste kiss is planted on a young page’s forehead, the new line of Tonner dolls holds something for you. “I’m very excited about our Summer Blockbuster release. It’s a collection of current and classic characters, most of which have come from big summer movies. We’ve just released Prince of Persia, characters from The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Tim Burton’s Alice, Clash of the Titans and Doctor Who and Torchwood. For the fall, we have The Princess Diaries and Tron, both from Disney.”

Tonner, who began his professional life as a fashion designer for “real, live” women and recently returned to those roots, has found enormous success in the world of dolls. Initially, he worked within his comfort zone: tailoring breathtaking haute couture for his meticulously sculpted models. Always a huge fan of cinema, sci-fi books, and everything relevant and pop culture-based, it wasn’t long before he set his sights on these pastimes that were near and dear to his heart.

“I am personally involved in tracking the ‘hot’ trends—it’s one of the biggest parts of my job,” Tonner shares. “How do I do it? I try to really see what’s out there in the popular culture and experience it if I can.  I read a lot (all kinds of things—the New York Times, any new kids’ series books that have good buzz, bestsellers, etc.). I go to every movie I can (good or bad) and I watch TV shows that people are talking about. Most of all, I try to stay open to hearing about new trends. I’m in my mid-fifties, and it’s not as easy for me to stay current—but I give it my best shot,” he jokes.

Tonner is supported in this pursuit of the perfect vehicle by his colleagues and creative team. “In our weekly company meetings, we also have a ‘pop culture’ section when anyone who’s heard about anything interesting is asked to tell the group about it. It’s surprising how many things can come to the surface in those meetings. At the same time, the people I work with here are also pop culture junkies and they keep me well-informed. I’ve also been lucky—a licensing agent once came to me with a book series that was being turned into a movie and he thought it would make great character figures. That was Twilight.”

Through hard work, persistence and sometimes good old-fashioned luck, Tonner has built a company that excels in escapism meets realism. His dolls might pay homage to elves and goblins, magicians and Munchkins, but he treats each imaginary character with respect and reverence. “Over many years, I have built a portfolio of licensed characters. So, initially, whenever we approached a company to license its character, I had a solid background to show—and to prove that we were able to handle the project we were after. Today, because of the amount of licensed products we make and our reputations in the marketplace for treating licensed characters with both sensitivity and taste, licensing companies and movie studios will approach us with projects that they think might make successful dolls or figures. If there is a license that I want, I can now go after it with the confidence that we have been very successful with a variety of characters—and that’s a compelling story to tell a potential licensor.”

How very true—it’s a compelling story for us collectors as well, who are delighted that Tonner Doll Co. is flourishing happily ever after.

For the complete article and photos, see the September 2010 issue of DOLLS.

Photo Caption

Limited to 1,500 pieces, DOLLS’ cover girl Galadriel, Lady of Light is an exquisite depiction of the role immortalized by award-winning actress Cate Blanchett in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Priced at $159.99, the 16-inch radiant beauty has blue eyes and cameo skin tone. Galadriel is garbed in a flowing chiffon gown with custom embroidery and pearlescent brooch. Her boots are lace-up shimmering metallic, and her carefully crafted crown is silver and gold.  Her warm and welcoming nature is evident in her creation. Image of Cate Blanchett, courtesy of Warner Bros./New Line Cinema.

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